Monday, December 27, 2010

The joys of winter gardening

As the rest of the country reels from blizzards and hunkers down for an impending ice age, I am enjoying one of the perks of being a Los Angeleno: winter gardening.

After a week of drenching rain, the LA sun burst forth in all her glory, the May flies swarmed in the humid air, and an inner voice whispered, "It's planting time!"

Since I missed the fall deadline for planting seeds. I went to OSH to buy potted plants. As I filled my cart with my favorite winter veggies, I inhaled the heady and intoxicating smell of humus---a high that gardeners cannot resist. I felt a rush of joy and remembered what Adam told Eve in Paradise Lost: "Not for irksome toil but for delight God made us." In case you're wondering, the delight that Adam was referring to was gardening.

Yesterday I planted my potted veggies in my kitchen garden--a one-by-twelve-foot strip of land next to my back door where I grow greens and herbs for salads and cooking. It wasn't very onerous work since last year I painstakingly prepared the ground, using a pick axe to bust sod that had turned rock hard and didn't want to relinquish its grip. Last year's sod-busting nearly killed my back. This year the soil was soft as cake as I gently turned it over with plastic hand digger. I planted lettuce, spinach, cabbage, cauliflower, collared greens, parsley, cilantro, onions, etc. I also harvested a half dozen exquisitely delicious tomatoes from my last tomato plant, which has not only survived, but thrived.

Gardening has been a passion of mine most of my life. When I was in grad school, and spent much of my time in the library, the garden was a godsend--a way to get out of my head and down-to-earth. One of the best lessons I learned from grad school was how to grow basil and make pesto.

When I was living in an apartment in West Philly during the Quaker phase of my life, I had an urban garden which inspired a poem I called "The Surrender Garden" (instead of "Victory Garden") which I will quote later.

Today I began turning over the soil in my front garden. That's a bigger task than my kitchen garden since it's ten by fifteen feet in size, but since the sod was busted last year and I used lots of grass clippings as mulch, the soil was soft as putty and swarming with earthworms--a good sign of soil health. I was able to turn over half the garden in half an hour without straining a muscle.

I plan to use a seed catalogue this year and experiment with plants not easily found elsewhere--brussel sprouts, beets, asparagus, arugula, and some purple potatoes.

There is no end to the joys of gardening, whether you do it in the winter, spring, summer or fall. For me, it's a spiritual practice that brings the body and the soul in harmony with the Ground of Being--the Creator and Sustainer of Life--and always fills me with deep gratitude. As the Psalmist says, "Taste and see! the Lord is good!"

The Surrender Garden

(for Wendell Berry)

I farm a room-sized plot of earth
where once a factory stood.
In spring, I'm met by eager volunteers--
onions and leeks, Swiss chard and kale
green and sweet as those in paradise.
But as I turn the soil for the first time,
bricks the size and shape of potatoes
stick in my digger's stubborn teeth.
My brow sweats. My winter-weary muscles ache.
I feel the effects of the fall.

My seeds are scattered to the sound
of kids and cars, trolleys and boom boxes.
I use my hands instead of a digger
because I love to mold and stroke the earth,
to feel it touch my skin.
I sit in my garden like a kid in a sandbox
and think of my Greek grandfather
for whom gardening was no game.
With the sun and rains
weeds rise up like angry peasants
insisting on their squatter's rights.
I can't blame them.
I've been an absentee.
Down on my knees, I make a space
for my seedlings as I pull the weeds
carefully by the roots,
roots that go on and on
like my compulsions and obsessions.
This is the work that never seems to end,
the work my father and his father handed down.

Some evenings I come here simply to sit alone,
and watch things grow.
It's quiet and still as a church.
At the far end of the garden
a woman waters her flowers,
and the smell of wet earth rises
like a prayer, an offering,
into the darkening sky.

Philadelphia, 1985

Saturday, December 25, 2010

One of the best Christmas gifts ever,,,,

I took my homeless friends Melissa and Shaun to lunch today. As readers of this blog know, Melissa is a homeless woman who has adopted me as her "father-in-Christ." She calls me daily on her cell phone and we get together once a month for lunch.

Melissa has had a tough life. She is around 30 years old, crippled due to neurofibromitosis, and lives on $930 per month SSI. She also has a 11-year-old daughter whom she adores, but she cannot live with because she can't afford to provide her daughter Kristine (not her real name) with suitable housing. Kristine has lived with foster parents, and now with Melissa's parents, who have given Melissa a hard time since she was a baby. Through much of her life, Melissa has experienced rejection from her parents, who sent her to foster care, and even now side with Melissa's abusive husband rather than with their own daughter. This Christmas Melissa's parents would let her have Xmas dinner with them and her daughter only if Melissa agreed to buy the food!

Melissa remains cheerful, nonetheless, and is grateful that she has Shaun as her boyfriend and caregiver. Both of them became Christians around five years ago and have been faithful and supportive of each other ever since. It never ceases to amaze me how they manage to stay together under such trying circumstances.

I couldn't think of better Christians to spend Christmas with, so I invited them to lunch. They were thrilled not only because they have no money with which to buy food, but also because no one has ever taken them out to dinner on Christmas. This was such a special occasion Melissa even wore makeup--something she has never done before!

I picked them up at a donut shop in Torrance near the cheap motel where they live. We drove to Norm's for lunch but it was so crowded we decided to go elsewhere. We were on our way to IHOP when Melissa pointed out a hole-in-the-wall cafe called "Mrs. G's."

"Let's go there," said Melissa. "It's got good food and it's cheap."

"Money isn't a problem," I said. "Let's go to a nice place."

"This is a nice place," Melissa replied. "I've taken my daughter there. Twice."

That made it a 5-star restaurant, as far as Melissa is concerned. Any place she has been with her daughter is golden.

As far as I'm concerned, Mrs. G's had only one thing in its favor. It was very quiet. Virtually no one was there, even though it was Christmas. That's because it's not the kind of place that middle class families would go to for a holiday meal. It had the funky look of a 50s diner. The plastic covers on the chairs were repaired with Scotch tape. But Melissa assured me the food was good. She always orders the same thing: steak and eggs.

During our leisurely meal we had a good time talking about various things: family, religion, politics. Shaun is very articulate and we share most of the same views about political matters.

Melissa doesn't think much of politics. She likes to talk about people, particularly those she has been able to help. And she always has at least one memorable story.

"A friend of mine has mental problems," Melissa explained. "I was helping him and he told me I was from another planet. I said, 'What do you mean? I'm not an alien!' He goes, 'I know you're not an alien, but you're not from this world. You're an angel.'"

Shaun and I both agreed Melissa's friend got it right: she is an angel-in-training, earning her wings every day on the streets.

They gave me a Christmas card and when I got home, I read it and was deeply moved. It proved to be the best gift I've received this Christmas. Here's what it said:

"Dear Anthony, Well, Christmas is here again , and we have the herculean task of trying to put into words what you mean to us. You are a friend, a mentor, a cheerful well-wisher, and a father-in-Christ to two people who desperately need all those things. We love and think of you all the time. You can never know how much you mean to us. Merry Christmas, Melissa and Shaun."

I don't know how to put into words how much Melissa and Shaun mean to me. All I know is that when I am around them, I can feel the presence of Jesus and of angels and other blessed spirits, and I am grateful, beyond what words can tell. And I am sharing this with you so you will know that Jesus wasn't kidding when he said: "Blessed are the poor" and "Tis better to give than to receive..." When you give to the poor in love, what you receive back is priceless.

If you'd like to see a youtube of Melissa and Shaun, taken when I treated them to a Thanksgiving dinner, check out:

This will open your eyes (and hopefully your heart) about the plight of the homeless.

Monday, December 20, 2010

A Real Live Baby Jesus Touches the Heart of a Greedy Kid

For a number of years I helped my wife with the children's program at her Methodist church. I served in a variety of capacities: helping with crafts, serving snacks, leading discussions, and dressing up as various biblical figures from Moses to Jesus for Vacation Bible School and skits. It was fun, but we sometimes wondered how much of an impact we were having on the kids. Some were churched, some unchurched, and some came from families so alienated from religion and God you wondered why they left their kids with us. The cynical answer: we provided free child care!

I remember in particular an elementary school kid named Katie whose mother had a bitter divorce and was extremely cynical about everything. As a result of emotional neglect at home, Katie was unbelievably needy and greedy. Whenever we offered prizes to learn Bible verses, Katie was always anxious to get the "best" prize. And if she didn't get what she wanted, she would start crying like a pre-schooler.

Like most girls her age, she was an avid consumer and utterly Machiavellian when it came to manipulating adults. I remember overhearing Katie and some other girls talking about various ploys to use in order to guilt-trip parents into buying stuff they wanted.

Katie had no idea about God or Jesus when she first came to our Kids' Club, but gradually she got the idea that Jesus had something to do with being nice and loving people. But her main goal in Kids' Club was to act the main part in skits and get all attention and prizes she possibly could. And heaven forbid that she shared anything with anyone else!

I often wondered if our efforts to teach the message of Jesus made any difference in the lives of kids like Katie. I remembered the cynical saying that the church provided just enough of a dose of Christianity to insure that people were immune to it for the rest of their lives.

The test of my faith (and hers) came one Christmas when we took our Kids' Club to Manhattan Beach to take part in the Journey to Bethlehem (see This is an amazing experience, the Renaissance Faire of Christmas. Members of this church go to astonishing lengths to re-construct the village of Bethlehem as authentically as they can, with little shops, stalls, goats, donkeys, and people dressed in biblical costumes. As in Renaissance Faires, people learn how to act in character, whether they are Roman soldiers, shopkeepers, or religious figures. Kids of all ages, from 5 to 85, love this experience which brings to life the nativity story.

As you enter the Bethlehem, you are given shekels, tokens that can be used to buy cookies and cider, time in the petting zoo, and other goodies. Naturally, Katie and the kids took their shekels very seriously and hoarded them for just the right purchase.

After a while, some angels appeared on the rooftop of a nearby building, illuminated by spotlights and surrounded by clouds formed by dry ice. With a fanfare of trumpets they announced the birth of a Savior in the city of Bethlehem. Everyone looked around to see what would happen.

At first, nothing seemed to be happening. You almost didn't notice a man with a donkey, his pregnant wife precariously perched on the donkey's back. It was so crowded this unremarkable couple were almost invisible, just as they would have been in real life. Soon people began noticing and followed the couple as they made their way to a stable. There a line formed and we all waited for the opportunity to see the baby Jesus,

Katie was beyond herself with excitement, and so were all the other kids. It was a long, long wait---maybe five or even ten minutes--but it seemed forever. Finally, we got to the inside of the stable and there was Mary with her baby. Not a toy baby, as we expected, but a real one--a baby maybe six months or a year old, but still, a real, live baby!

Katie and there other kids were of course in awe of this unexpected miracle, and she was not alone. All of us felt wonder at the mystery of this real-live baby in which the Divine Light glowed. Katie turned to me and said very quietly and seriously,

"Can I give the baby Jesus a present?"

"Of course," I said.

With great care Katie reached over the fence and gave Mary her shekels.

Katie's face was glowing in a way that I had never seen before.

At that moment, I thought that perhaps our efforts hadn't been wasted. I knew the somewhere Jesus was smiling as he accepted this love gift from one of his broken, but nonetheless beloved and lovable children.

Friday, December 17, 2010

The Audacity of Love

I bring greetings of peace and hope, both of which are in short supply during this holiday season. Two years ago we elected a leader who campaigned with a message of hope--the audacity of hope, he called it--but it's hard to see signs of hope in this dark political climate:

  • The US has the highest rate of child poverty, homelessness, and incarceration in the industrial world.
  • The US has the highest health care costs and the poorest health outcomes
  • The US is still the "largest purveyor of violence in the world"(to use MLK's phrase)--with the lion's share of our budget going to war--and our country still practices torture, despite claims to the contrary.

  • When we learn the dirty secrets of the US empire and transnational corporations through the courageous expose of Wikileaks, our government tries to destroy the messenger rather than take seriously the message.

  • Taxes are cut for the rich and the middle class, and raised for the poor, while benefits for the poor are slashed. And our president has the audacity to tell us this is the best we can hope for!

Many of us have been led to despair because our hopes in Obama were based on a delusion-the delusion that we can transform our society simply by electing a new leader who will "fix" our problems.

This hope was not well grounded. We need to be the change we want in the world, and we need to put our faith into action. Hope without faith in the Divine--the Divine in each of us--is vain, and faith without love (faith in action) is dead.

Love and faith are what empower us to do what needs to be done to justify hope.

What gives me hope is not an idea (though clear thinking and sound analysis are very important), but the Spirit embodied in people. People committed to making this a better world are the ones who are helping to bring the Heavenly Kingdom down here to earth, where it is desperately needed

So instead of talking about my own efforts, as I often do in my holiday letter, I'd like to share with you the people who give me hope. Let me begin with the people in the top picture: the members of the Parliament of the World's Religion ( who went with me to Melbourne, Australia, for the largest interfaith gathering in the world. These dedicated peace makers work unceasingly to create interreligious understanding both locally and globally

I am also inspired by Melissa and Shaun, a homeless couple who have embodied faithful love and hope in spite of tremendous challenges. Melissa doesn't let her disability get her down, and Shaun also remains cheerful despite life's vicissitudes. I plan to take them out to lunch on Christmas this year since I can think of no more fitting way of celebrating the birth of Jesus than by sharing a meal with those He dearly loves.

The next picture shows Dick Bunce and Steve Rhode, both members of Interfaith Communities United for Justice and Peace ( As former president of the So Cal chapter of ACLU, Steve has been an courageous defender of civil liberties. He also works with Progressive Jewish Alliance, Death Penalty Focus and other good causes. For the last couple of years he has served as our first Jewish president of ICUJP and brought to our group his amazing intellect, compassion and passion for justice. Dick Bunch, a Methodist pastor, has also worked tirelessly for peace and justice, and for the welfare of the mentally ill.

Pictured on the left are two other dear ICUJPers: Grace Dyrness and George Regas, pastor emeritus of All Saints and founder of ICUJP. George is such a well-known and beloved interfaith leader that nothing needs to be said about him other than he is a joy to be around. He radiates honesty and joy (and also happens to be Greek, like me). Next to him is Grace Dyrness, a professor at USC, and a community organizer, who works for the homeless and other marginalized groups both here in the USA and around the world. She deserves to be called Amazing Grace!

Two other dear members of our Beloved Community showed up at the ICUJP holiday party: Shakeel Syed, the ED of the Islamic Shura Council of Southern California, and Peter Laarman, the ED of Progressive Christians Uniting. They are both champions of justice and peace, and dear friends.

Next are two pastors, Pastor Diane Rehfield (a Methodist) and Pastor Judy (a Presbyterian) from the hotmeal program at Walteria UMC. These dear people not only do good, but also inspire others to do likewise. They are the salt of the earth, the leaven in the loaf, that Jesus spoke glowingly about. God bless them!

Finally there is the Rev. Louis Logan and his daughter Angelique. Louis arrived late for the ICUJP Christmas party this year because he had spent the night in jail. His crime? Protesting against the predatory practices of banks that have devastated the economy of disadvantaged communities like the black neighborhood he serves. He carried a sign that read: WE GET NOTICES, THEY GET BONUSES. The spirit of Dr. King lives on in this courageously faithful pastor.

There are just a few of the many people who are part of the Beloved Community here in Los Angeles--people I know and love. These are the people who give me hope--people whose Light shines in the darkness.

May all of us take time to pray, reflect, and connect with our own Inward Light. Take time to listen to what that Light is telling you to do. And then have the audacity to love, and to let your Light shine--in your family, your neighborhood, and around the world. Then truly the living Christ will be born where it really matters, in your heart and in the hearts of those around you.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

"The Calling" and other treasures

This week I saw a preview of a powerful documentary that explores the feelings and motivations of young people who have "callings"--mostly religious--though one young evangelical Christian loses his religious faith and becomes a teacher (another kind of calling).

At the Actors' Gang in Culver City, where the screening took place, two of the young people in the documentary were present and answered questions. At another screening in San Pedro, a local pastor presided and led a discussion afterwards. This documentary lends itself to deep discussion and raises some searching questions for us to address, such as, What is YOUR calling in life?

As you can see from the trailer, participants in the documentary are very diverse--a Muslim woman who wants to become an imam, a Catholic priest, a Protestant youth pastor, etc.

Note that this two-part series airs on back-to-back nights December 20 and 21 at a special time - 9 PM on PBS nationwide. For trailers and other info, see and

Speaking of previews, I have been working on a new blog for the Quaker Universalist Fellowship at This blog will be formally launched in January 2011, but if you go to this site now you can connect with our Quaker Universalist Fellowship website which contains a treasure trove of interesting stuff about Universalism and Interfaith. The most recent post is a pamphlet about a recent trip to Iran taken by Steve Angell, a professor from the Earlham School of Religion.

I am pleased to be on the board of Quaker Universalist Fellowship as well as of the Christian and Interfaith Relations Committee of Friends General Conference--two national Quaker organizations devoted to promoting understanding among peoples of different faith traditions. This new blog will report on the important peace-making work of both these organizations

In keeping with the interfaith spirit, I want to wish you all a happy Hanukwanzamas!

Monday, December 13, 2010

"We Loved As Best We Could"....and other pearls

I think of poetry as the soul's "pearl of great price." Pearls are beautiful, yet they were not created to be beautiful. They were made by the oyster to protect itself from a painful foreign substance, like a grain of sand or grit. Slowly and painfully, the soft innards of the oyster transforms the irritant until it becomes a thing of beauty, a lustrous pearl.

I find that poetry is the soul's way of transforming the pain of love and life into something lustrous and beautiful. It is a slow, inward process--a miracle of tranformation.

Over the last few months, as my heart opened up like an oyster opening its shell, I found myself writing a series of poems, some of which I have shared on the blog. This week I was pleased that "The Western Friend" published this poem I wrote two months ago, just as I met a new friend who entered my life like Blake's grain of sand:

To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour....

At an art gallery in Bergamot Station

with the curiosity of a scientist
and the searching eye of an artist
you puzzled how
these boulder-sized stainless steel cubes
were crumpled like boxes of Kleenex
with such amazing artistry they seemed alive
gathered in a circle to worshipor just breathing

the answer was simple: a vacuum pump
sucked all the air from these perfect cubes
and the weight of the atmospherewe take for granted crushed them
into living forms

is it not so with us
when we let ourselves be emptied
and let the Unseen have its way
nature abhors a vacuum
but the Spirit loves and needs our emptiness
so we can be crushed and molded
into perplexing beauty

Over the next two months our relationship unfolded, and many beautiful pearls were created:

Vesper Light

meditating with the scent of sage
filling the room with a sense of peace
i think of You
night-blooming jasmine,
pulsing with fragrance too sweet,
too potent to put into words

i think of You walking on streets
transmuted by the cool of the evening
and wisps of vesper clouds
floating in the western sky
with their underbellies soft and pink
and a belt of cobalt blue
darkening and deepening beneath them
and masses of wine-dark clouds
like mountains, islands, forests rising from an unseen sea
as if daring a painter to paint them or a poet to describe them

i think of You when words fail and the heart is at peace
what else is there to think of but You?

closing circle at pendle hill
at close of day, just before bedtime,
a circle of Friends sits and reflects
on a bowl of autumn leaves
so vibrantly colored they don't seem real,
and listens to poems we have known for years
read by an aging English couple
slowly, deeply like the echoes in a well
the mournful choir of gnats....the wild swans of Coole....

familiar words, yet able to surprise us still
to charm into stillness with their old magic

but then a deeper magic
surprisingly appears
amidst these gray heads and fallen leaves
i think with gratitude
of You, a flower
unfolding its pale pink petals
against the endless blue
horizon of your eyes
in the warm, throbbing
springtime of my astonished heart

Counting the days

As the train pulled out of the station,
another day of traveling,
another day without you
movies starring us
recur in my mind,
some reruns
that make my heart smile,
some still in the storyboard stage
with the same recurring questions:
is she the one, the one for me,
am i the one, the one for her?'
am i? is she? what next?
what next? what next?

all aboard! the next stop is....
the train moves on and on and on
all I know is
i count the days
until i see you again

An exchange of dreams

She: i sink into the dark, the place
where the dark one sometimes comes
my panther, my spirit guide
when i hit rock bottom
the floor was luminescent green
and i sat and waited
sometimes he comes and carries me away
in his great paws
sometimes he eats me, crunches my bones
but i don't mind
i don't feel any pain, just surprise
and once he ate my arms
and i was glad---out of the bloody sockets
four arms grew
four new arms with which to create new art!

now i am sitting and waiting
on the green luminous floor
and he appears,
only he is not black but silver gray
like your hair--
he crouches and waits, watching me
and i sit and watch him watching me
and feel at peace

He: i rose out of my bed
and glided towards the front door
opened the doorknob and flew away
into the clear blue sky
and looked down at the beautiful vistas
mountains and valleys and endless blue seas
and i was not afraid
i was being held by the loving hand
of My Beloved

Then suddenly and unexpectedly, the dream ended, with this pearl of a poem emerging after a week of pain:

“We loved as best we could”

One morning you suddenly left
on my doorstep
a package of memories--
all the gifts I'd ever given you--
with a note labelled "returned to sender,"
and I recoiled in shock...

It was as if you burned down
our lovely hanging bridge,
a bridge constructed lovingly
of bits of wood and straws and
lollipop stems and paper flowers glued on,
and ropes of candy necklaces--

a bridge of dreams
over a gorge thick with mist.

For days the smoke and mist were so thick
it was impossible to see
and the sound of water
thundered so resoundingly
we couldn't hear a thing
but the echoes of our own words
of explanation,

Sick at heart,
we watched the fragments of our lovely bridge
caught in whirlpools
spinning helplessly round and round
until carried away downstream

Then a paper airplane glided to the shore
with a simple message
"we loved as best we could"

And the smoke and mist cleared
just enough to see
on the far, far distant shore
a tiny figure waving her hand
whether to say 'goodbye' or 'hello'
I couldn't tell

Beloved Friend, Source of All That Is, I give thanks for the "perplexing beauty" of life and love, with all its pain, and joy.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Do sting operations help to deter terrorism?

Does anyone seriously believe that the FBI sting operations that entrap young, often confused Muslim men really help to thwart terrorism? Or is this just another effort at fear mongering on the part of the national security state?

There is apparently no evidence linking the 19-year-old Mohamed Osman Mohamud with any terrorist group. He became an FBI target because of his fascination with violent Islamist websites. This has been the story with other young Muslim men singled out for these high-profile stings.

What is the real purpose of these stings? As the old saying goes, follow the money. There is a lot of money to be made in the national security business, just as there is a lot of money to be made in the so-called "war on drugs." Those who stand to profit from these highly profitable wars are law enforcement officials, judges, prison guards, not to mention the shadowy figures involved in sting and entrapment operations.

Why Portland, Oregon? Could it be because the city council of Portland was skeptical about the war on terrorism and voted five years ago not to give homeland security its unconditional support. See

Now of course, the city council will cooperate fully and pony up whatever funds are necessary for its share in protecting its citizens from non-existent threats.

Does tempting a young man to become a terrorist deter terrorism?

If the man had a prior history of involvement, and there was no other way to prove his involvement other than by means of a sting, a case could be made for such a tactic being effective. (Whether such a tactic is moral or ethical is another matter.)

Imagine if the FBI tried to fight bank robbery using stings If a fake FBI gang went into poor neighborhoods and tried to recruit young men who were not gang members, but fantasized about being part of a gang, would this help reduce the number of bank robberies? Or would it convince young men that the FBI couldn't be trusted, and system was out to get them, and perhaps induce them to join a real gang?

I suspect that stings and entrapment will not reduce the threat of terrorism but actually increase it. Young men who are smart and want to become terrorists will simply be more careful when someone offers to recruit them. The Muslim community will be less likely to trust the FBI and support its legitimate activities.

But of course the whole purpose of the national security state is not to reduce terrorism, but to intimidate citizens into financing expensive schemes that perpetuate rather than solve the problem.

Let me conclude with a Sufi story about that wise fool Nasruddin.

Nasraddin was seen spraying his back yard every day and his neighbor was curious about why he was doing this.

"I am spraying my yard with tiger repellent," said Nasruddin.

"Tiger repellent?" said his neighbor. "There are no tigers for a thousand miles from here!"

"See," said Nasruddin, "It's working!"

The same may be said about most of the efforts to reduce terrorism here in the USA.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

William Penn and the Indians

One of the myths of America is that the Pilgrims and the Indians had a "kumbaya" moment during the first winter after the Mayflower landed at Plymouth rock. The reality is that the Puritans were aggressive and hostile towards the local Wampapoags even as the first people made every effort to be hospitable and welcoming. Miles Standish even beheaded an Indian and committed other atrocities, for which his descendent has apologized to the Indians. The word "Thanksgiving" was used by the Puritans only after a military victory in which Indians were slaughtered. For the true story of the Pilgrims and Indians from an Indian perspective, see

The story of the Quaker encounter with the Indians is less well known. In fact, it is hardly known at all by most Americans, and is never told in schools. Nonetheless, it is very instructive and much more hopeful.
The icon of the encounter between Quakers and the Indians is Edward Hick's "Peaceable Kingdom." In the foreground it shows the scene from Isaiah in which the lion lies down with the lamb, and the child can handle snakes and other animals without harm, and there is peace in all of God's creation. In the background, Penn is signing a peace treaty with the Indians--a peace treaty which, unlike virtually all others whites made with the Indians, was never broken. The message: the Peaceable Kingdom requires us to have peaceful and just relationship with the first people of North America (whom Penn equated with the lost tribe of Israel). This belief is at the heart of our Quaker faith.

Penn wrote a letter about his encounter with the Indians which ironically begins by saying he was treated with more kindness by the Indians than by many people in England! Penn along with other Quakers went to prison for his religious beliefs, and many Quakers fled to Pennsylvania to escape persecution.

Pennsylvania was not only a place safe for Indians, it was a haven for people of all faiths. (That is, until non-Quakers came and began fighting the Indians.)

Penn took pains to learn the language of the Indians and study their culture. He not onlythought the Indians were the lost tribe of Israel, he also believed the Indian language was similar to Hebrew. He describes the Indians and their customs in great detail and with much sympathy, which I think you'll find fascinating.

Here's the link:

This was written ten years after the "King Phillip's war," in which the Puritans massacred the Indians--perhaps as many as 27,000, leaving only a remnant (3,000) alive.
I hope we take to heart what really happened when whites and Indians encountered each other, and listen to what the first people have to tell and teach us.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

What's Wrong with Thanksgiving?

It may seem churlish to fault with a holiday that brings families together, encourages interfaith worship, and depicts Indians and Pilgrims getting along peacefully. Yet I have mixed feelings about Thanksgiving and couldn’t put my finger on why until I began to dig deeper into history and into myself.

First, I have long been troubled about the way we sanitize the story of the Puritans and Indians for our children. It is true that when the Pilgrims arrived, they were befriended by the local Wampanoag tribe and celebrated a Thanksgiving meal together. But this period of tranquility didn’t last long. Unlike the Quakers in Pennsylvania who believed that there was “that of God” in every person and treated the Indians with respect, the Puritans believed that the Indians were heathen savages and treated them accordingly. The Puritans broke their treaties, stole land, and massacred the natives. Very few Indians survived the Puritan invasion.
Our sanitized view of Thanksgiving reflects the Pilgrim perspective and the way we American like to view ourselves—as friendly, likeable people, not as invaders and conquerors. To understand the whole story, we need to look at the arrival of the Pilgrims from Indian point of view as well as the white man’s. William Apes (1798-1839), a Pequot Indian, wrote the following:

In December, 1620, the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth, and without asking liberty from anyone, they possessed themselves of a portion of the country, and built themselves houses, and then made a treaty and commanded them [the Indians] to accede to it.... And yet for their kindness and resignation towards the whites, they were called savages, and made by God on purpose for them to destroy....”

Apes details the atrocities committed by the Puritans over the next couple of decades. Of course, Apes was biased. The Puritans tried to eradicate the Pequots in 1637 and slaughtered women, children and old men in a famous battle in Mystic, Connecticut. If we want our children to grow up with a complete and accurate view of American history, we need to share with them this Indian perspective.
I am not suggesting that we wallow in guilt about our treatment of the Indians. What we need to do is listen, really listen to what the native people, the First People, are trying to tell us, and teach us. Over the years, I have made it a practice to try to find and connect with Native peoples wherever I live, whether it’s New Jersey, Pennsylvania, California, or wherever. Millions of Native people live among us (sometimes next door) and they have a perspective that we seldom hear, but need to take seriously.

I am deeply grateful for what I have learned from Native people. Thanksgiving seems a good time to express that gratitude.

This year I was especially moved by the words of Jacqueline Keeler, a member of the Dineh (Navaho) Nation and the Yankton Dakota Sioux, who works with the American Indian Child Resource Center in Oakland, California. She wrote a moving essay called “Thanksgiving from an Indian Perspective” that begins:

I celebrate the holiday of Thanksgiving. This may surprise those people who wonder what Native Americans think of this official US celebration of the survival of early arrivals in a European invasion that culminated in the death of 10 to 30 million native people. Thanksgiving to me has never been about Pilgrims. When I was six, my mother, a woman of the Dineh nation, told my sister and me not to sing "Land of the Pilgrim's pride" in "America the Beautiful." Our people, she said, had been here much longer and taken much better care of the land. We were to sing "Land of the Indian's pride" instead. (See )

Jacqueline proudly describes some of the things that the Native people have given to the world, and for which we should all be thankful. She lists lots of foods, including potatoes and tomatoes, but for some reason leaves out chocolate (my favorite). At my wife’s church, we have long made it a practice to thank the Native people for their gifts during our worship service from time to time. It is a good exercise, one that I recommend. Why not try it at your Thanksgiving meal this year?
Jacqueline concludes her essay with a story that helps us to look deeper into our own hearts for the seeds of violence that has darkened our history from the time of the Puritans to the present:

By 1623, Mather the elder, a Pilgrim leader, was giving thanks to his God for destroying the heathen savages to make way “for a better growth," meaning his people. In stories told by the Dakota people, an evil person always keeps his or her heart in a secret place separate from the body. The hero must find that secret place and destroy the heart in order to stop the evil. I see, in the "First Thanksgiving" story, a hidden Pilgrim heart. The story of that heart is the real tale than needs to be told. What did it hold? Bigotry, hatred, greed, self-righteousness? We have seen the evil that it caused in the 350 years since. Genocide, environmental devastation, poverty, world wars, racism. Where is the hero who will destroy that heart of evil? I believe it must be each of us.

Sad to say, we white Americans are still inclined to hide our hearts in a secret place and to sanitize our motives. Only when we look within ourselves and acknowledge our human weaknesses can we be healed and become whole human beings, capable of love and truthfulness.

We should be grateful to our Indian brothers and sisters for trying to teach us this important lesson. It is a lesson that we need to take to heart and to share with our children on this day of Thanksgiving.

Monday, November 22, 2010

The Tao of Quakerism

Since returning from my trip to the East Coast, I have been editing one of the hidden masterpieces of Quakerism: Herrymon Maurer's translation of the Tao Teh Ching, with a Quaker/Hasidic Jewish commentary. Herrymon was my mentor and friend when I first came to Princeton Meeting in the early 1980s. He was a "recorder minister" and a sage who kept a low profile for reasons I explain in my article on Herrymon and the Tao of Quakerism. See

I'd be very interested in your thoughts about my article or about Herrymon's commentary on the Tao Teh Ching. He has written over a hundred pages by way of introduction, with a powerful prophetic critique of our society, from the standpoint of Taoism and Quakerism, or as Herrymon would say, simply The Way. I am submitting this for possible publication by Quaker Universalist Fellowship, or perhaps a trade publisher. It needs to be back in print!

The Tao/Virtue Classic Commentary

1. Tao Can’t be Taoed

If Tao can be Taoed, it's not Tao.
If its name can be named, it's not its name.
Has no name: precedes heaven and earth;
Has a name: mother of the ten thousand things.

For it is
Always dispassionate:
See its inwardness;
A!ways passionate:
See its outwardness.

The names are different
But the source the same.
Call the sameness mystery:
Mystery of mystery, the door to inwardness.

Beyond words is Tao! The opening passage of the Tao Teh Ching has the vigor of the first sentence of the book of John: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." But here majesty is admixed with paradox and humor. The impact of the first line is multiplied by an additional meaning that hinges on a divine pun, "If the path can be followed, it's not the path," and also by a derivative meaning with the sense of "If God gods it, he's not God."

In the original, the word constant modifies the second use of Tao in line one (and in line two the second use of name). It has been omitted in translation because the impact of the rhythm of the sentence, as significant as the sense, is upset, and because the Western reader is not likely to imagine Tao as anything but an absolute. In Chinese, Tao also means Path or path, since ancient times its primary meaning, and the modifier constant is needed to differentiate the extraordinary from the ordinary. (Except, of course, that the ordinary is more extraordinary than the extraordinary.)

The phrase ten thousand things is usually rendered as all things and the phrase heaven and earth as the universe. Chinese ideographs encourage concreteness.

2. Takes No Credit

When all beneath heaven
Know beauty as beauty,
There is not beauty.
When all know good as good,
There is not good.

For what is and what is not beget each other;
Difficult and easy complete each other;
Long and short show each other;
High and low place each other;
Noise and sound harmonize each other;
Before and behind follow each other.

Therefore the sage
Manages without doing,
Teaches without talking.
He does not shun
The ten thousand things:
Rears them without owning them,
Works for them without claiming them,
Accomplishes but takes no credit.

Because he does not take credit,
It cannot be taken from him.

Beyond opposites is Tao! Often assumed to be a statement of the relativity of values, this chapter is actually a song of praise to the beyond-everything wholeness of Tao. Any thing less than Tao is so immensely less that the differ ences between anything less and its opposite are of little significance. A turning from ordinary differentiation enables the sage to find closeness to Tao and enables him to accomplish but take no credit.

An eighteenth-century Hasidic teacher, Yehiel Michal of Zlotchov, noted that "if there were no evil, there would be no good, for good is the counterpart of evil. Ever lasting delight is no delight. .. the fact that evil confronts good gives man the possibility of victory." [Martin Buber, Tales of the Hasidim: Early Masters, New York, Schocken Books, 1947, p. 144]

Beneath heaven is typically translated as the world, a place of many meanings and a term of no location. There fore, in classical Chinese, means simply that there is a link 'between what goes before and what comes after, but not , that there is a causal or even sequential relationship. The logic of the Chinese language includes an indeterminism of intermingling happenings, which are not strictly causal. In this translation, for, hence, now, so, also, and thus often substitute for therefore.

3. Doing Nothing-doing

If you don't exalt the worthy:
People then will not compete.
If you don't prize rare goods:
People then will not steal.
If you don't show what is covetable:
The people's hearts won't be upset.

Thus, when the sage rules,
He empties hearts
And fills bellies,
Weakens ambitions
And strengthens bones.
He leads the people
To not-know and not-want,
And the cunning ones
To dare not do.
By doing nothing-doing,
Everything gets done.

Setting an example of contention is a typical occasion for contention. Quaker John Woolman, writer of journals and worker against slavery, wrote in the eighteenth century about "ways of living attended with unnecessary labor. .. which draw forth the minds of many people to seek after outward power and to strive for riches, which frequently introduce oppression and bring forth wars." [Considera tions of Pure Wisdom and Human Policy, 1768]
Isaac Penington, a seventeenth century devotionalist, wrote about the value of not knowing: "Be still and wait for light and strength and desire not to know or compre hend …” [Letters, John Barclay edition, p. 173]

When the sage empties hearts and fills bellies, he meets needs but shuns covetousness. He
also encourages humility. In Chinese, empty-hearted means humble. As for the full belly, eating at a shared table has long been held as worshipful among Chinese as it has among Jews.
The famous adage of wei wu wei, here translated as doing nothing-doing, is the positive form of wu wei, literally not-do, and thus signifies do not-do. Its full meaning, to be grasped only in context, embraces not alone the wisdom of non-interference but in addition the forcefulness of taking action in the realm of the inward: i.e., the realm of nothingness that is accessible only through humility. In this realm, humility is positive and passivity is dynamic; purposive action is static. Nothing -doing gets things done; something-doing does not.

3. Use Emptiness!

Tao is empty! Use it
And it isn't used up.
Deep! It seems like
The forebear of
The ten thousand things.
It blunts edges,
Unties tangles,
Harmonizes lights,
Unites all dusts.
Submerged and existent!
I don't know whose child it is.
It looks to be the source.

Apparently different in manner and meaning from Lao Tzu's hymn of praise is the hymn of praise of the later Isaiah, but the common sense of awe is nearly identical.

Who ever measured the waters in the hollow of his hand
or ruled the skies off with a span,
or held the dust of earth inside a measure,
or weighed the mountains in a pair of scales,
the hills within a balance?
Who ever moved the mind of the Eternal,
or gave him lessons and advice?
Who ever was called in to give him counsel?

Who ever taught him how to act, or showed him
what to do? [Isaiah 40: 12-14, Moffatt translation.]

Differences in the outer clothing of words are swallowed up in wonder at the pervasiveness of the Undefined, the Unknown, the Ever -present, whether the nameless and inexplicable YHVH or the nameless and inexplicable Tao. John Woolman says:

"There is a principle which is pure, placed in the human mind, which in different places arid ages hath had different names. It is, however, pure and proceeds from God. It is deep and inward, confined to no forms of religion nor excluded from any where the heart stands in perfect sincerity. In whomsoever this takes root and grows, of what nation soever, they become brothers in the best sense of the expression. Using ourselves to take ways which appear most easy to us, when inconsistent with that purity Which is without beginning, we thereby set up a government of our own and deny obedience to him whose service is true liberty." [Considerations On Keeping Negroes, Part Second, 1762]

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Becoming a Friend of God: the Path of Sufism and Quakerism

I have been busy these past few months working on a pamphleet/booklet about Sufism and Quakerism, two mystical paths that I have walked in my life and want to share with others. So far, I've written nearly 15,000 words and plan to keep writing as long as Spirit leads. It's been a joy to plunge into the ocean of mystical writings associated with Sufism and to discover many unexpected affinities with Quakerism. I will post my work as it evolves and would appreciate your feedback. My hope is to publish this work as a follow-up to my pamphlet "Islam from a Quaker Perspective."

Outwardly, Quakerism (the mystical branch of Christianity) and Sufism (the mystical branch of Islam) may seem worlds apart. Sufism is associated with dervish dancing, exotic Middle Eastern music, and the ecstatic poetry of Rumi. Quakerism is associated with peace activists, plain-dressed people sitting in silent worship, and William Penn, the founder of Pennsylvania, and the icon of oatmeal. But there are deep affinities between these two spiritual paths, and it is no accident that Quakerism and Sufism refer to its practitioners as “Friends.”

In this collection of short essays I explore the similarities between these spiritual paths and suggest how they can help us to become more intimately connected with our true selves and with Reality. These mystical paths also have a prophetic dimension—a social witness against materialism and injustice--that is much needed in today’s world. We live at a time when most people in the industrial world inhabit a “virtual reality”—a world of television, movies, and the internet—a world where we are defined by what we buy rather than who or what we are. In this unreal world of compulsive consumerism we become addicted to our desires, and eventually become prey to fears and anxieties. These fears become the seeds of bigotry, violence and war.
Mysticism, as practiced by Quakers and the Sufis, can help free us from our fears and our addictions and lead us onto the path of true freedom. As we come to know who we truly are and become acquainted with our true self, we can also form deep, life-transforming relationships with others, based on the realization that each person is sacred and therefore worthy of our deepest attention and respect. This is the way of Friends.

Sufism is the mystical heart of Islam. It emerged in the 8th century CE as an Islamic ascetic movement. Some scholars see connections between Sufism, Buddhism and Christianity and no doubt such connections exist, but most Sufis see their practice as deeply rooted in Islam. Early practitioners of Sufism include Hasan al-Basri (642-728) and Rabiah al-Adawiay (d. 801), the first great female Sufi teacher and poet. Perhaps the most famous Sufi is Jalal a-din Rumi who founded the Mevlevi order (known as whirling dervishes) and has become the most popular poet in America, thanks to Coleman Barks’ imaginative translations. Sufis played a political role in Islamic history, often standing up for the rights of the poor and oppressed. Sufism has also encouraged women to be spiritual teachers and leaders.

Quakerism began in the 17th century in England as part of the Puritan movement to reform Christianity by restoring it to its primitive roots. Quakers believe that each person can have direct access to God or Christ through the Inward Light and the practice of silent worship. Quakers are perhaps best known for opposing war and for championing the rights of women, African-Americans, homosexuals and other oppressed groups. Like Sufism, Quakerism is a mystical faith that emphasizes the direct experience of the Divine Within rather than outward rituals or the words of scripture.

I became a Friend, that is, a Quaker, in 1984 at about the same time that I encountered my first Sufi, a spiritual teacher from Sri Lanka named Bawa Muhaiyaddeen (who was known as “Bawa” to his followers). Coleman Barks, a student of Sufism known for his brilliant translations of Rumi, described Bawa as “one living in the state of union… and totally present in each moment… It was exhilarating to be there where he sat on his bed in Philadelphia, like breathing ozone near a waterfall” (Rumi, The Book of Love, p. 118).

I met this Sufi saint in Philadelphia, where he was well known and much appreciated by many Quakers. Some Friends even joined his Fellowship.

At that time I was editing a multi-faith publication called Fellowship in Prayer (now called Sacred Journey). The pay was modest, but the perks were priceless: thanks to this job, I had the opportunity to interview and worship with a remarkable array of spiritual teachers from various faith traditions.

One of my assignments was to interview Bawa, who first came to the United States in 1971 and established the Bawa Muhaiyaddeen Fellowship in Philadelphia. This Fellowship grew to over 1,000 followers in the Philadelphia area, with branches spreading throughout the United States and Canada, as well as Australia and the UK. I knew very little about Sufism at this time, but I was eager to learn more about it. Having just earned my Ph. D., I asked one of Bawa’s followers a decidedly academic question:

“I have heard that Eastern religion emphasizes union with God, while Western religion emphasizes communion with God. What does Sufism emphasize?”

The man smiled, paused to reflect, and then replied, “If a plane is flying at 30,000 feet, and another plane is at 20,000 feet, but you are on the ground, what difference is it to you the altitude of the planes?”

This zinger was just what I needed at this point in my spiritual journey. I realized that to understand Sufism (or any other mystical practice), it wasn’t enough to ask academic questions. I would need to walk the path, or at least one very much like it.

I’m not belittling academic studies. I have the utmost respect for scholars of religion, particularly ones like Huston Smith and Karen Armstrong, who have dedicated their lives to promoting interfaith understanding. If you want to know about Sufism, I heartily recommend the work of Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Laleh Bakthtiar, Carl W. Ernst, Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee, Idres Shah, Hazrat Inayat Khan, Kabir Helminksi, and Annemarie Schimmel. I have also provided a short list of books by and about Sufis for those who want to delve more deeply into this topic.
But books alone will not give you a taste of Sufism, any more than cook books will give you a taste of haute cuisine. To understand Sufism, or any other religious practice, you must acquire first-hand knowledge and experience. As the Psalmist says: “Taste and see!” (34:4). Fortunately, if you are interested, you can easily find opportunities to connect with Sufism and Quakerism and taste the Truth they seek to embody. The appendix lists some of the leading Quaker and Sufi organizations here in the United States.

For the past twenty five years, I have practiced Quakerism and had close friendships with Sufis who have opened my heart and mind to what it means to be a “Friend of Truth/God.” During this time, I also followed the example of Huston Smith and learned about various religions by practicing them. For nine months, I lived in a Zen Buddhist center in Providence, RI, and practiced meditation.

I also spent a year at Pendle Hill, a Quaker center for study and contemplation near Philadelphia, where I studied with many outstanding Quaker teachers, such as William Taber, Sonya Cronk, and William Durland.

Since 9/11, I have adopted many Muslim practices, such as fasting during Ramadan, praying five times a day, and worshipping with Muslims whenever I have the chance. I also make it a daily practice to read the Qur’an or some other Muslim devotional work along with the Bible.
Prior to 9/11 I didn’t have a single Muslim friend, but today many of my dearest and closest friends are Muslims and I have come to feel a part of the Muslim “family” here in Los Angeles. I owe an eternal debt of gratitude to kindred spirits such as Shakeel Syed, John Ishvardas Abdallah, Sherrel Johnson, Noor Malika Chishti, et al.

In 2002, I published a pamphlet called Islam from a Quaker Perspective which attempts to explain Islam to Quakers, and Quakerism to Muslims, in the most succinct possible way. This pamphlet was co-published by three Quaker organizations—Friends Bulletin, Wider Quaker Fellowship, and Quaker Universalist Fellowship—and circulated over 5,000 copies in 100 countries. It was even translated into German.

In this pamphlet, I focused on mainstream Islam and showed that there are many parallels between mainstream Islam and Quakerism. I deliberately omitted any reference to Sufism, however. I did this in part because I wanted to explain what the majority of Muslims believe and practice, and thereby help readers appreciate what James Michener called “the world’s most misunderstood religion.” In this current work I go deeper and explore the inner world of Islam and Christianity as I have experienced it through my study and practice of Quakerism and Sufism. I will examine a wide variety of motifs which are interwoven with the theme of spiritual friendship:

· Mysticism and the path of Friendship.
· The scriptural basis for becoming a Friend of God.
· What is the “Word of God” according to Sufis and Quakers?
· Yearning for the Divine and the Double Search.
· Simplicity, silence and becoming intimate with one’s true self.
· Find a balance between the male and female.
· Stories and Narrative Theology.
· Befriending the poor, the sick, the oppressed to become God’s Friend.
· Becoming a nobody in order to become a true Friend

My hope is that what I have to share abut Sufism and Quakerism will inspire you to go deeper in your spiritual life and to become more intimate with the source of truth within you and within every living being you encounter.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Let Evening Come: Some Reflections on the First Noble Truth

It's been one year and five months since Kathleen passed, and I want to share with you a poem about her that came to me while I was at Pendle Hill, the Quaker study center near Philadelphia where we were going to celebrate our 20th anniversary.

At the beginning of this month I went to Pendle Hill to attend a meeting of the Quaker Universalist Fellowship, and also to take part in a poetry workshop led by Paul Lacy, retired professor of English from Earlham College. Paul is lover of poetry and a friend of poets--and one of the wisest, funniest, most compassionate teachers I've ever known. His easygoing style makes sharing poetry a joy, and the class was full of delightful poetry lovers, mostly moms with college-age kids who had lots of interesting life experiences and poetry experiences to share.

We read William Stafford, Donald Hall, and Jane Kenyon--three poets who speak to my condition as a Friend.

Jane died of cancer at a relatively young age, 48, and left behind some very moving poetry, including "Let Evening Come," which was featured in the film In Her Shoes, in a scene where the character played by Cameron Diaz reads the poem to a blind nursing home resident. I am including it here for you to read and enjoy.

During one of the workshop sessions, Paul asked us to write a poem about joy and a place. This is the poem that came to me:

From your window in ICU

(for kathleen)

From your window in ICU
you could see only the dry river bed
but you joyfully imagined
where it led towards the blue mountains
and the rocky paths where you loved to walk
amidst the pale green chaparral

What a celebration it was
when those who were reborn
as stem cell survivors gathered
joyously at the City of Hope

Thousands of them, with their loved ones
caregivers, doctors, nurses--some of them dancing
some simply standing up or sitting down
miraculously, self-consciously alive
with buttons proclaiming their age:one year, five years, twenty years old.

My button said, “One day….”

On the day you had your transplant
I brought you a balloon
to celebrate our re-birthday
our new life about to begin
And now in my mind I release that balloon
once again and let it float away
dancing in the air with a kind of wild joy
towards those blue mountains
where you yearned to go

When I read this poem to the group, I couldn't hold back the tears, and neither could Paul. Paul's son, age 41, was killed last summer when a cement truck crashed into his car. Paul is still grieving. And how could a father not grieve at such a loss?

I was reminded of the story told about a grieving woman and the Buddha. A poor peasant woman married a prince, but was unable to bear children for many years. People mocked her for being a loser: poor and childless, what a disgraceful wife for a great prince! Finally, she became pregnant and was overjoyed. She would finally be able to prove to herself and the world that she was a worthy wife. She imagined with joy and pride what a fine son she would bear the prince--the finest son in the entire kingdom! Sadly, her son was still-born. When the woman learned this news, she became insane with grief. She carried her dead baby around with her and refused to admit it was dead. People were afraid she had completely lost her mind, so they advised her to see the Buddha. She went to the Buddha, hoping he could revive her baby by some sort of magic. The Buddha listened to her sad tale, and then gave her a mustard seed.

"Take this mustard seed and go to every house you can find," he said. "When you find a household where no one has lost a loved one, give them the mustard seed and come back to me. I will help you."

The woman went from house to house with her mustard seed, and after a year she returned to the Buddha. She still had the mustard seed.

"How can I help you?" asked the Buddha.

"I want to be your student," the woman replied, and Buddha smiled the sad, peaceful smile of one who is acquainted with grief. In the course of her journey, the woman had come to realize the first Noble Truth of Buddhism. Life is suffering. Realizing this truth is the first step towards Enlightenment.

As I discovered in this class of poetry lovers, we all have deep sorrows and we all need consolation. The word "consolation" means "being alone together"-- a beautiful way to describe how we can help each other to heal simply by sharing our pain and grief. Poetry can help us to get in touch with our deep feelings and to recognize we are not alone. It is by accepting our suffering and transforming it that we become fully human.

Jane Kenyon wrote this beautiful poem of consolation to remind us we are never alone:

Let Evening Come

by Jane Kenyon

Let the light of late afternoon
shine through chinks in the barn, moving
up the bales as the sun moves down.

Let the cricket take up chafing
as a woman takes up her needles and her yarn.
Let evening come.

Let dew collect on the hoe abandoned
in long grass. Let the stars appear
and the moon disclose her silver horn.

Let the fox go back to its sandy den.
Let the wind die down. Let the shed
go black inside. Let evening come.

To the bottle in the ditch, to the scoop
in the oats, to air in the lung
let evening come.

Let it come, as it will, and don't
be afraid. God does not leave us
comfortless, so let evening come. .


Yes, evening is coming and as Jesus said: "When night cometh, no one can work." Before evening comes, let's do what we can to spread Love in the world. This is the work that really matters....

I feel blessed to be able to carry on the work that Kathleen beautifully embodied in her life. And I'd love to hear what you are doing, so please stay in touch.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Current Quaker books....

While waiting for Friends General Conference (FGC) Central Meeting and the Christian and Interfaith Relations Committee session to begin this weekend, I've been trekking to Philly to spend time at the Quakerbook store at FGC and explored the latest in Quaker publishing. Here are some of the treasures I uncovered. They are listed in order of preference:

1) Spirit Rising: Young Quaker Voices (QUIP: FGC Press, Philadelphia PA, 2010). pp. 354, $17.50. This is the second book by Young Friends. that Quakers United in Publishing (QUIP) has sponsored. The first tilted towards unprogrammed, liberal Friends, but the current volume (a big, sprawling tome of 350+ pages) is much more inclusive. I've never seen any book that captures so vividly the amazing diversity and energy of the world-wide Quaker community--Evangelical, liberal, Christ-centered, non-theist, post-modernist--with a global reach that embraces Latin America, Africa and India as well as North America and the UK. The quality of writing is very uneven, but even poorly written entries are revealing and enhance one's understanding of contemporary Quakerism. Some of the entries are in Spanish (with English translations), since huge numbers of Evangelical Quakers reside in Latin America, and especially in Bolivia. This book is a delightful read--well worth time spent dipping into and also exploring in depth.

2) Quakers and the Search for Peace. Edited by Sharon Hoover. Friends Publishing Corp.: Philadelphia, PA: 2010. pp. 155. $16.00. This is a compilation of some of the best articles on peace that have appeared in Friends Journal over the past 50 years, although focusing on the more recent. Its themes include: Seeking Peace in Home and School, Seeking Peace in the Community, Seeking Peace in Prisons, Seeking Peace in Wartime, and Seeking Peace through an Artistic Lens. What is impressive about this collection is its broad range and its recognition that the Peace Testimony isn't just about opposing war, it's about manifesting peace and justice in every aspect of our lives. It begins with practical articles for parents, including what to do about ROTC or when your daughter wants to march in a Veterans' Day parade with the Bluebirds. It includes such nitty-gritty challenges, such as how do you, as a Quaker, respond to a mugging? There are articles on war tax resistance, AVP work in prisons, conscientious objection, and even using art and poetry to create visions of peace. I was pleased to see my piece on interfaith peacemaking included in this multifaceted collection of testimonies by Friends who are seeking to live "in the life and spirit that takes away the occasion of war."

3) Writing Cheerfully on the Web: A Quaker Blog Reader. Edited by Elizabeth A. Oppenheimer. 2009. pp. 273. $19.95. For those who prefer books to the internet, this is an excellent intro to Quaker blogging (for those totally unfamiliar with the internet: a blog is a web journal, a personal op ed, similar to a column in a newspaper). This compendium is also useful for those who haven't had time to keep up with Quaker blogs and are curious about what's been happening in the Quaker blogosphere over the past few years. The voices of Quaker bloggers like Liz Oppenheimer, Marin Kelley, Peggy Parson, Peterson Toscano et al carry a vibrancy and freshness that is sometimes lacking in the more carefully vetted print versions of Quakerism. Blogs tend to be short, personal, and pithy, and sometimes irreverent. Take the opening of Peterson Toscano's essay on ministry called the "M Word": "No, this is not a reference to a TV show about meterosexual men. The M word as in Ministry." A great way for a stand up comic to talk about discovering that comedy can be a form of ministry. The section on "Convergent Friends" helps clarify this much discussed term describing an internet-inspired "movement" of Conservative and liberal Friends who have been meeting virtually and face-to-face to have dialogue and build connections. Ranters, pagans, non-theists, and Christ-centered Friends of all flavors share their stories in real time via blogs. Like Spirit Rising, this is essential reading for anyone interested in the vitality and diversity of contemporary Quakerism.

4) If the Church Were Christian: Rediscovering the Values of Jesus. Phillip Gulley, author of If Grace Is True. Phil Gulley is a Quaker pastor from the Indiana who loves the teachings of Jesus so much he is willing to point out the shortcomings of those who profess to be his followers. (He doesn't spare himself.) Gulley writes with gentle humor, common sense and keen insight, calling for Christians to be faithful to Jesus' gospel of love and forgiveness. His open and affirming approach to Christianity has made him unpopular with the conservatives in Friends United Meeting; He even received hate mail from Friends when he wrote a book claiming that God would "save" everyone--gays, straights, even non-believers--through the power of Infinite Love and Goodness. Gulley is a delight to read since he has a wonderful gift for storytelling and anecdotes (he has published many popular books in which he writes about his midwestern Quaker church with the same wry humor that Garrison Keillor uses to describe the happenings of Lake Woebegon, Minnesota). In 2010 Gulley was invited by Quaker Universalist Fellowship to give the Elizabeth Watson Lecture at the Friends General Conference gatheringr--a sign that what Gulley has to say is truly universal. I recommend this book for anyone who wants to understand what liberal, self-critical, universalist Christianity is all about.

5) Heaven in the Midst of Hell: A Quaker Chaplain's View of the War in Iraq. Stories and Photographs by Commander Sheri Snively, D. Min., CHC, USNR. Raven Oaks Press: San Diego, CA, 2010. pp. 269, with many full-color illustrations. $26.95. Sheri Snively is a Quaker chaplain who loves American soldiers (her "daddy" was a military man) and feels deep compassion for the Iraqi people who are the victims of war. She describes what it's like to be at the bedside of an American soldier whose spine has been irreparably damaged and will live the rest of his life as a paraplegic. She shares her anguish in trying to console an Iraqi mother, one of whose sons has been killed, and another critically wounded. Sitting with this grieving mother who beats her chest and cries out "Allah, allah," Snively feels "helpless and horrified." When the mother's second son Mohammad dies, Snively asks: "Does anyone notice or care? A few did.... He shouldn't have to die in vain.... But what does that mean?" Asking questions like this is as close as Snively comes to questioning the war in Iraq. She focuses instead on the poignant moments, especially those in which soldiers show their humanity (like sticking chocolate in the pockets in Mohammad's sister). Snively's theology is upbeat and positive; she understands Jesus as a healer, but not as a prophet. Her book is full of evocative snapshots and moving vignettes that remind us that even in the midst of war's horrors, there are good people and blessed moments. Those looking for a critique of war, or any sense of outrage at war's stupidities and horrors, will be disappointed by this book. Snively seems to regard war as a natural disaster or an act of God, like an earthquake or tsunami, rather than as a man-made catastrophe deserving of critical reflection. Towards the end of this book, Snively describes going to an anti-war rally wearing her "Camp Ar-Ramadi Iraq 2006' sweatshirt because she was "proud to have been there.... and not afraid to let people know." She sees her as a kind of peace activist, and she is welcomed by the protestors. She joins some of them for dinner and tells them war stories, and they listen sympathetically. I'm sure they felt as I do. It is good to know that kind, compassionate people like Sheri Snively are serving as chaplains. It would be even better if our troops came home and there was no longer any need for people like her to give comfort to those whose hopes and dreams have been shattered by the hellish horrors of war. (See also

6) Interfaith Dialogue at the Grass Roots, ed. by Rebecca Kratz Mays. Ecumenical Press: Philadelphia, PA., 2008. pp 131. $15.00. Rebecca Mays is a Quaker teacher and editor who ran the publications program at Pendle Hill for many years and has given workshops on spirituality with a Marcia Praeger, a Jewish renewal rabbi. This fine collection of essays on grassroots interfaith work was put together as a special issue for The Journal of Ecumenical Studies and explores interreligious dialogue/conversation from an Abrahamic perspective, i.e. Jewish, Christian and Muslim. I highly recommend this book as a thoughtful and helpful introduction to interfaith dialogue from both a practical and theological standpoint.

6) The Wisdom to Know the Difference: When to Make a Change--and When to Let Go. Eileen Flanagan. Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin: NY, 2009, rpt. in paperback 2010. pp. 272. $19.95. Flanagn writes Quaker self-help books that are popular and highly readable. This book is based on the Serenity Prayer ("Lord, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can change, and wisdom to know the difference"); and it comes with this blurb from the Dalai Lama: "The Wisdom to Know the Difference is about being able to change. What is important is that we can change and transform ourselves into better, happier people." Who can argue with the Dalai Lama, or an author who can convince him to write a blurb on her behalf? I'm actually very pleased that a Quaker author can write a book so readable it can find a niche in this highly competitive market. Flanagan doesn't hide her Quakerism, either. She uses queries and discusses clearness committees and pervades her book with Quaker values, while at the same time affirming the truth in other faiths, from Roman Catholicism to Buddhism. I am glad to join the Dalai Lama in recommending this book to people of all faiths, not just my own little circle of Friends.

7) A Lasting Gift: The Journal and Selected Writings of Sandra L. Cronk, edited by Martha Paxson Grundy, forward by Parker J. Palmer. FGC: Philadelphia, 2009. Sandra Cronk. A sensitive, thoughtful seeker and teacher, Sondra Cronk taught at Pendle Hill for many years and wrote two slender pamphlets: "Peace Be with You: A Study of the Spiritual Basis of the Friends Peace Testimony" and "Gospel Order: A Quaker Understanding of Faithful Church Community" (PH Pamphlet 297). Despite poor health, which caused her much physical and mental pain, Sandra lived a rich spiritual life, earned a doctorate in divinity from the University of Chicago, and made an important contribution to Quaker spirituality. Among other things, she helped to launch the School of the Spirit, a program that helps Friends to deepen their spiritual lives and become spiritual directors. This book charts Sondra's life, with passages from her notebooks and other writings. For those interested in deepening their spiritual lives, this is an invaluable resource. As Deborah Shaw writes, "[Cronk's] hard-won wisdom speaks to us, through the testimony of a life centered in prayer and lived in Christ."

8) Imaginary Friends: Representing Quakers in American Culture (1650-1950). James Emmett Ryan. The University of Wisconsin Press: Madison, 2009. pp. 285, with illustrations. $26.95. This erudite tome explores with subtlety and depth the diverse ways that Quakers have been portrayed in books, art, and movies. I would highly recommend this book to scholars, but the general reader will probably find most of it too dense to be enjoyable. This is regrettable since there is enough material here to make a fascinating book, if it were written in a more readable style.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Vacation in poetry land

Having a wonderful time at Pendle Hill. Wish you were here. I'm taking a class on poetry with Paul Lacy, retired prof of English from Earlham College--a lover of poetry and a friend of poets--and one of the wisest, funniest, most compassionate teachers I've ever known. His easygoing style makes sharing poetry a joy, like a vacation in a place you've always wanted to visit, and when you finally get there, it's even better than what you imagined. The class is full of delightful poetry lovers, mostly moms with college-age kids who have lots of interesting life experiences and poetry experiences to share. We are reading William Stafford, Donald Hall, and Jane Kenyon--three poets who speak to my condition as a Friend.

What I did on my vacation (it's a lie)

For Paul Lacy
whose life work is a vacation in poetry land
(and who gave the assigment: "what I did on my vacation... you must lie about it....")

I went on vacation to a land
where only poetry is spoken
where every voice hovers on the edge of song
where trips down memory lane are always filled with surprises:
a field of dead horses like bulbs ready to sprout into amazing flowers
or the nagging, heart-rending questioning of a child who asks and asks:
why did Daddy have to cut this tree?
Why, grandma, why?
and every story has a point,
though not necessarily a sharp one
where young men and women are not afraid to show passion
where old men and women are not ashamed to show tears
and there is no need to escape from the mundane or the eternal
there is no check in or check out time
in fact, no time at all
whatever the weather is, we find it beautiful
clear skies, snowstorms, tornadoes, squalls,
and the hot, sultry summer days that never end
the ever-changing weather of the soul
is always interesting, always worth a poem
something we can bring home as a souvenir
and share with friends, even the ones who hate poetry,
and they will say, “Wow!”

What kind of poem is this?

Some poems fly off the page
and light on your shoulder like lorakeets
and demand your attention

others perch on the side of cliffs
unreachable, mysterious

some soar in the sky far out to sea,
like an albatross

some appear in familiar places,

like sparrows,abundantly alive

others require that you travel great distances
after painstaking preparation, so that you can catch a glimpse
a flash of breathtaking plumage
what kind of poem is this?
It isn't a poem, it's an egg
what it becomes
depends on you

the chaplain and the tell-tale heart

(for lizzy beasley)

when she walked into the room
she saw to her horror it was too late
the pale, waxen face, the stiff, unmoving body
was not what filled her with terror
it was the cadence of his heart beating
thumpity thumpity thump
she could feel it in her feet, her whole body shook
with the sound of it
and she saw it—a red, throbbing heart,
hooked to a vast and complicated machine
next to his bedand she thought of his family and shuddered
and felt deep sadness
and her heart began to beat more rapidly
uncontrollably and she almost panicked
then words came, words she knew by heart:
“so that now to still the beating of his heart
he stood repeating,tis some late night visitor entreating
entrance at his chamber door
that it is and nothing more....”
she smiled, relaxed: "that it is and nothing more.
nothing more."

From your window in ICU

(for kathleen)

From your window in ICU
you could see only the dry river bed
but you joyfully imagined
where it led towards the blue mountains
and the rocky paths where you loved to walk
qmidst the pale green chapparal
What a celebration it was
when those who were reborn
as stem cell survivors gathered
joyously at the City of Hope
Thousands of them, with their loved ones
caregivers, doctors, nurses--some of them dancing
some simply standing up or sitting down
miraculously, self-consciously alive
with buttons proclaiming their age:
one year, five years, twenty years old.
My button said, “One day….”
On the day you had your transplant
I brought you a balloon
to celebrate our re-birthday
our new life about to begin
And now in my mind I release that balloon
once again
and let it float away
dancing in the air with a kind of wild joy
towards those blue mountains
where you yearned to go

closing circle at pendle hill

at close of day, just before bedtime,
a circle of Friends sits and reflects
on a bowl of autumn leaves
so vibrantly colored they don't seem real,
and listens to poems we have known for years
read by an aging English couple
slowly, deeply like the echoes in a well
the mournful choir of gnats....the wild swans of Coole....
familiar words, yet able to surprise us still
to charm into stillness with their old magic
but then a deeper magic
surprisingly appears
amidst these gray heads and fallen leaves
i think with gratitude
of You, a flower
unfolding its pale pink petals
against the endless blue
horizon of your eyes
in the warm, throbbing
springtime of my astonished heart

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

End Torture NOW

When President Obama ran for office, he promised that Bush policies on torture and state secrecy would change, that the US would follow the Geneva conventions, and that Guantanamo would be closed. Soon after his inauguration, President Obama issued a statement saying that the United States would end the practice of torture, but little has changed. He called for the closure of Guantanamo but has not yet done so. Invoking the state secrecy act, the Holder justice department refuses to investigate or prosecute cases of torture that took place during the Bush administration, and has even blocked efforts to seek compensation by victims of torture. President Obama needs to be pressured to live up to his promises, and Congress also needs to know this is an issue that voters care about.

What can we do to end US-sponsored torture?

First, educate ourselves and our neighbors about this problem. Invite expert speakers to your meeting, organize interfaith panel discussions, or show the NRCAT-sponsored video "Ending US-Sponsored Torture Forever; a study for people of faith." (Copies are available for free.)

Second, become involved with organizations like the Quaker Initiative to End Torture (QUIT) and the National Religious Campaign to End Torture (NRCAT). NRCAT recommends specific actions we can take to make a difference. For instance, the Department of Health and Human Services declined to investigate the CIA’s alleged torture experiments. We are urged to tell the President and the Attorney General to ensure a thorough investigation of the allegations.

NRCA also provides a wealth of information and templates for op ed pieces we can submit to local newspapers. It not only alerts us to specific legislation and opportunities to make a difference inside the Beltway, it can help us to make the connection between national and local issues (such as the cruel and inhumane treatment of inmates in our prisons).

During the conference, we also learned about local actions that we can take. Here are a few examples:

  • Friends in Boise, Idaho, have helped convince local religious leaders to take a stand against torture--no small achievement in this conservative region. Boise Friends also crafted a minute on torture that was approved by North Pacific Yearly Meeting.
  • Friends in Berkeley has worked with others to convince the City Council to approve a resolution calling for a “Say no to torture” week, Oct 10-16.

  • Chuck Fager and others have been working locally in Fayetteville, NC (the site of Fort Bragg) to convince the city council to do something about rendition flights taking off from the county airport. No action has been take yet, but Chuck is convinced that "patience and determination" will ultimately pay off. (He has written an excellent little booklet with that title, with "tools for ending torture and seeking accountability." You can order it by emailing him at

We heard inspiring stories about anti-torture work in Monterey, Los Angeles and other places. I told about the work done in LA by Interfaith Communities for Justice and Peace when it launched a NRCA campaign just prior to the election of Obama. I explained how important it is for non-Muslims to stand in solidarity with Muslims on this issue since sometimes Muslims are nervous about taking the lead without support from those of other faiths. Muslims are most likely to be victims of US torture so it is a vital concern for this faith community.

We had events at a synagogue, mosque and cathedral, with participation from major religious leaders from LA as well as by experts on this subject. Interfaith delegations went to over a dozen Congressional offices. We circulated petitions urging Obama to end torture. The South Coast Interfaith Council, one of the largest interfaith groups in the Long Beach area, with over 140 congregations under its umbrella, took a strong stand against torture. Dedicated activists like Betsy Hailey and Virginia Classics have continued this work with the Valley Interfaith Council, All Saints Church in Pasadena, etc. I am the official rep for Santa Monica Friends Meeting to ICUJP. Our Meeting approved a minute opposing torture which was approved by Pacific YM a couple of years ago.

NRCAT supports these local efforts in a variety of ways, sometimes providing expertise and sometimes grants.

Speakers at this conference included Scott Horton, a human rights lawyer and activist; Terry Kupers, a psychiatrist who has studied torture and "cruel and unusual punishment" in US prisons; Hector Artistizabal, an actor/psychotherapist/healer from Colombia; and Father Roy Bourgeois, the Jesuit priest who had made it his life's work to end torture in Latin America and to close the infamous School of the Americas.

Five years ago, in 2005, the first QUIT conference took place at Guilford College in North Carolina and drew 130 people. The next two conferences drew over 100 people. This one at the Ben Lomond Quaker Center attracted only 35, in part because of the economy, in part because of the location (there are fewer Quakers out West), and in part because many people imagine that torture is no longer an issue with the Obama administration. Sadly, this isn’t true. President Obama has continued Bush’s torture regime. Little has changed.

John Calvi, one of the founders of QUIT, is a Quaker spiritual healer who became aware of this issue when victims of torture from Central America came to him for trauma healing. This first-hand experience with victims of torture had a profound effect upon John. He began to investigate the issue of torture, and what he discovered shocked him deeply. He was especially horrified to learn that children were being detained at Guantanamo. As will discussed later, the show case trial that is now taking place at a military tribunal in Guantanamo involves young man who was fifteen-year old when he allegedly killed a US soldier. This teenager has been tortured, threatened with sexual assault, and denied basic rights guaranteed under international and US law. From a legal as well as PR viewpoint, this case is a train wreck and an PR disaster. Yet the trial goes on. John told us it is very hard emotionally to accept the reality that “torture has become a world-wide business, and that the US has become the McDonalds of torture.”

“This is subject we don’t like to think about,” John admitted. “It can make us very uncomfortable.” John was moved to tears when he told us that he looks forward to the day when he no longer has to address this issue, when he is “out of work,” and when torture is truly and finally abolished.

It was comforting to explore this issue among the beautiful redwoods and to find healing in nature and in the company of kindred spirits. As John reminds us, to do anti-torture work we must take care of ourselves so we don't become overwhelmed emotionally. During this conference, we learned how to transform our anguish into a loving commitment that can bring healing as well as an end to torture.

On Friday night, Terry Kupers spoke about “cruel and unusual punishment” and torture that is taking place in American prisons. Kupers, an psychiatrist and Professor at the Wright Institute, is one of the leading experts on mistreatment of prison inmates in the USA. He shared horrendous stories about how inmates are treated at super max prisons where people are kept in segregated cells without bedding, books, TV, clothes, or any contact with the outside world. Such sensory and social deprivation is a form of torture. Unfortunately, these forms of psychological torture have been exported to other countries.

What can we do? He said that conservative legislators who support prisons oppose torture and inhumane treatment since it makes prisons look bad. Many who are not persuaded by moral arguments are moved by financial considerations. Super max prisons are terribly expensive and usually lead to longer and more costly sentences.

Inmates by law are entitled to a safe environment in which to serve their sentences. Many are subject to sexual harassment. In Michigan 500 women inmates won a law suit against prison guards who raped them; the settlement was 15 million dollars. Such sexual harassment goes on in prisons throughout the country. Many of those at prisons like Abu Graib were prison guards in US prisons and simply continued practices common here in the USA. (See

The prison system of California has been considered a form of "cruel and unusual punishment" because of overcrowding. Overcrowding leads to violence and jeopardizes the safety of inmates. Our prison system can be considered a form of psychological torture, and has been described as "barbaric" by Time magazine: .,8599,1997219,00.html

We need to tell our elected officials (as well as our friends and neighbors) that the humane treatment of inmates, e.g. drug rehabilitation, is more cost effective than the vengeful treatment of inmates.

Father Roy Bourgeois told his personal story, beginning with the time he served as a chaplain in Vietnam. There he observed that torture was commonplace, and has been a routine practice of the US military ever since. He later became concerned about the use of torture in Bolivia and El Salvador and other parts of Latin America.

When 500 El Salvadoran soldiers went to Fort Benning to be trained by the US military, Roy and others opened up a little house called “Casa Romero” to address the issue of torture. They dressed up a high-ranking officers and brought a boom box with the final sermon of Archbishop Romero where he made a plea to the military asking them to lay down their weapons and stop killing their fellow compasenos. Bishop Romero was a prophetic bishop. He didn’t start out that way—he was a “company man”—you don’t get to be a bishop if you’re an advocate for the poor and for peace—but Bishop Romero had a heart of compassion and he heard the cry of the poor, and he spoke out. So Roy and his friends went into the Fort Benning dressed as officers and climbed a pine tree and began playing the sermon of Bishop Romero. The soldiers came out with their weapons and Roy came down from the tree (but left the boom box there). Roy and his friends were brought to trial, and they were sentenced to prison for a year and a half.

Recently Roy Bourgeois went to Colombia with some other activists and dressed up as "Uncle Sam" (Tio Sam) and engaged in street theater with the military. Dressed as Uncle Sam, he thanked the soldiers for turning over their country to the US.

A man of courage and faithfulness, Father Roy has also spoken out in favor of the ordination of women. The Vatican has threatened to excommunicate Roy, but he remains firm in his commitment to speak the truth to power, beginning with those in his own church.

I should also add that Father Roy is one of the kindest and most loving men I have ever met. He is living proof that you can be both gentle and strong.

Scott Horton, a human rights lawyer and author, has been a tenacious investigator of torture. This year he broke the story that three alleged suicides at Guantanamo were actually murders perpetrated by secret US units. Here are some notes I took during his presentation:

We are all familiar with what happened in the Bush era, and we looked forward to change we can believe in. Has this change happened? If not, why not?

Attorney General Gonzalez recently wrote an article justifying use of torture. He argues that this is justified since the president needs unlimited power during time of war. Gonzalez reduces the Constitution just to the exec branch.

Before becoming President, Obama denounced torture, warrantless wiretaps, State Secret Acts, and promised “to restore standards of due process that have made this country great.”

He issued an exec order condemning torture, outlawed water-boarding, black sites operated by CIA, etc. Now black sites are operated by a different group called JSOC, which is much more secretive.

Obama’s failure to close Guantanamo is troubling. Take the showcase trial of Omar Khadr, who was apprehended in 2002, when he was 15. He has been charged with homicide and giving material aid to terrorism. This case is severely damaging our reputation around the world. First, he was a juvenile offender. Under international law, trials need to be conducted within six months or so. It took two years for him to get an attorney and another three years for charges to be raised. He was kept in solitary confinement and then with adults—both prohibited under international law. He says he was tortured and coercively interrogated. One of Khadr’s interrogators admitted that Khadr was tortured. In 2002 US signed a treaty saying that child soldiers would be treated as victims, to be rehabilitated, not punished. Instead, Khadr was labeled as an enemy combatant. Khadr was a Canadian citizen, and came from a dysfunctional family. His father was a militant Islamist who pushed his son into service of the Taliban. Normally, charges would be brought against the parents, not the child, for reckless endangerment. In Oct 2007, in the midst of the trial, the prosecutor named Davis resigned. Jim Haines, one of Dick Cheney’s protégés, told Davis that the cases should be brought up in a way that would influence the elections. Davis said some of the cases were weak and might lead to acquittals. Haines said there would be no acquittals. Six prosecutors resigned as a result. The Canadian courts ruled that Khadr was tortured and the government had a responsibility to do what it could to removed him from Guantanamo. (See article by Andrew Sullivan, below.)

After Obama is elected, the defense shows that key evidence of interrogation was deliberately destroyed—which is a felony, namely, obstruction of justice. Doctors discover that Khadr was blinded in one eye while under US custody, and a wound inflicted on him six inches in size. Evidence is also introduced indicating he probably didn’t kill an American soldier.

Horton says this case is a "nightmare and train wreck" from a legal standpoint.

From the standpoint of Nuremberg, this case doesn’t make sense as a war crime trial. By bringing this case, the US shows it fails to live up to international law and its own standards of justice. Second, the actual evidence is weak and contradictory. Prosecutors introduced evidence that a soldier confessed that he shot Khadr while he was unarmed and captured—this is a war crime. Third, the only evidence they have is a confession by Khadr, exacted through torture. Fourth, it is bogus for the US to claim it is a war crime for a civilian to kill a soldier. If this is true, we are committing war crimes every time we authorize private security forces to kill civilians. This is what Horton calls the “Khadr boomerang.”
Why are they doing this? Why didn’t he reverse course and pull this case?

The Obama team asked the prosecutors to reevaluate their cases under new standards, but so little pressure was exerted that the prosecutors simply said, “We are going forward. Nothing wrong was done.”

Why didn’t White House intervene? Some White House staff such as Greg Craig et al were serious about abolishing torture. These people were forced to resign.

Rohm Emanuel: “Look forward, don’t look back.” In other words, continue the Bush policy. This policy is seen as ridiculous in Europe, where efforts have been made to prosecute Americans guilty of aiding and abetting torture. (See article below about Spanish judges.)

The President has decided it isn’t politically advantageous to oppose torture.

JSOC (Joint Special Operations Commission) operates a black site at Bagram etc. Some of the worst practices took place at JSOC sites. JSOC was exempted from the regulations on torture.

The use of torture seems to have lessened after 2005, but it hasn’t disappeared.

Anyone who wants to know more about torture should definitely follow the writings of Scott Horton. He is amazingly well-informed.

Hector Arizstizabal, a native of Medillin, Columbia, was a victim of torture and lost his brother to the violence in his country. A psychotherapist, he fled Columbia and came to the USA where he earned a degree in Marriage and Family Therapy. For the last 15 years he has been involved wit the Theater of the Oppressed and gives workshops in hot spots around the world, including Israel-Palestine, Afghanistan, and Columbia.

He led us in light-and-lively games, and then some exercises to help us get in touch with our feelings about torture at a feeling level. His healing work is truly amazing. His joy and enthusiasm inspire hope. He is one of the most powerful healers I have ever encountered.

We concluded the weekend workshop by sharing stories of what we are doing in our own communities to end torture.

We ended our conference with a time of worship in the redwood circle, an outdoor worship space, where we met on each previous day. During our last meeting for worship, a young man named Noah Merrill, who works for the AFSC in Washington, DC, gave a short message that inspired me to write this poem:

Breathing hope

(written at a quaker conference to end torture at the ben lomond quaker center in the redwoods near santa cruz)

“for love to enter
and lies to cease,
we must breathe hope”

these words were spoken by a young man
aptly named noah
as we sat in a circle and worshipped
under the tall magnificent trees
whose silence
is deeper than we can know
our anger and pain and fears subsided
in the deep, healing silence
in the comforting shade of trees
whose hopeful branches are uplifted towards the light
whose leaves turn light and air and water
into cathedrals of peace

this everyday miracle is accomplished
one cell,
one leaf at a time
with water from deep below
and light from a nearby star
and from the surrounding air,
the unseen molecules of air
enveloped by this deep mystery
we sit and wait for the light
to transform us
light that comes from we know not where

we breathe in, we breathe out, we let our breathing go
we know not where our breath goes, our life goes,
we know only this
we are one with these trees
and with each other
and with all who live and suffer
trusting this light will be transformed
in us
through us
beyond us
into words and actions deep and strong as these trees

Torture Business Close to Home

Jappensen, an airline company that helped the CIA arrange flight to "render" terrorism suspects to countries where they could be tortured, is located in San Jose, CA. Rendition is illegal under US and international law, but the Obama administration used the old Bush excuse of "state secrecy" to deny defendants their day in court to sue the airline. On Sept 6, the appeals court sided with the administration and threw out the case on state secrecy grounds, even though it is no secret that Jeppensen arranged for the defendants to be flown to countries where they were tortured. The Obama administration won praise from The Wall Street Journal for upholding Bush policies, but those who oppose torture (such as the ACLU) are outraged.

Quoth the Wall Street Journal:

"Another week, another legal vindication for the Bush, er, the Obama Administration's war on terror. On Wednesday, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals cited the executive branch's state-secrecy privilege to dismiss an ACLU attempt to challenge the legality of sending terror suspects from the U.S. to other countries. Our friends on the left are now going nuts about "torture flights," but we'll take this decision as evidence that this Administration has its grown-up moments."

For the views of those who oppose torture, see:
Obama's Use Of Tortured Evidence
by Andrew Sullivan

12 Aug 2010 10:48 am

Jennifer Turner at the ACLU argues that "although President Obama promised transparency and sharp limits on the use of tortured and coerced statements against the accused," a detainee captured during the Bush years and sentenced earlier this week at Guantanamo Bay continues America's pattern of abuse.

Khadr, then 15 years old, was taken to Bagram near death, after being shot twice in the back, blinded by shrapnel, and buried in rubble from a bomb blast. He was interrogated within hours, while sedated and handcuffed to a stretcher. He was threatened with gang rape and death if he didn't cooperate with interrogators. He was hooded and chained with his arms suspended in a cage-like cell, and his primary interrogator was later court-martialed for detainee abuse leading to the death of a detainee. During his subsequent eight-year (so far) detention at Guantánamo, Khadr was subjected to the "frequent flyer" sleep deprivation program and he says he was used as a human mop after he was forced to urinate on himself.

In closing arguments before the judge's ruling, Khadr's sole defense lawyer, Lt. Col. Jon Jackson, told the judge, "Sir, be a voice today. Tell the world that we actually stand for what we say we stand for."

Though President Obama promised that coerced evidence would not be used against detainees in the military commissions, today's ruling suggests that as a country, we stand for abusing a 15-year-old teenager into confessing, and using those confessions against him in an illegitimate proceeding.

The danger of torture is not just the act of torture. It is the way in which the powerful can produce the confessions they want. And the necessity of proving, in this case, that imprisoning and torturing a 15 year-old was not a mistake makes the government double down even further. What happens is that physical force is introduced into the system of alleged justice. There is no justice then; just power.

"Philippe Sands, the British lawyer, and author of Torture Team, which provided much of the first-hand evidence for [Spanish Judge Baltasar] Garzón’s case... stated that there was 'no legal barrier' to prevent Judge Garzón’s prosecution from proceeding...

"He also explained that [U.S. Attorney General] Eric Holder’s [recent decision to appoint a special investigator] is only a first step, 'limited to cases in which interrogators may have exceeded the limits formally approved by lawyers in the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel,' [and] that the architects of the 'legal decisions that purported to justify the use of torture are not in immediate danger in the United States...' "

Spanish judge resumes torture case against six senior Bush lawyers

The Spanish newspaper Público reported exclusively on Saturday that Judge Baltasar Garzón is pressing ahead with a case against six senior Bush administration lawyers for implementing torture at Guantánamo.

Back in March, Judge Garzón announced that he was planning to investigate the six prime architects of the Bush administration’s torture policies — former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales; John Yoo, a former lawyer in the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, who played a major role in the preparation of the OLC’s notorious “torture memos”; Douglas Feith, the former undersecretary of defense for policy; William J. Haynes II, the Defense Department’s former general counsel; Jay S. Bybee, Yoo’s superior in the OLC, who signed off on the August 2002 “torture memos”; and David Addington, former Vice President Dick Cheney’s Chief of Staff.

In April, on the advice of the Spanish Attorney General Cándido Conde-Pumpido, who believes that an American tribunal should judge the case (or dismiss it) before a Spanish court even thinks about becoming involved, prosecutors recommended that Judge Garzón should drop his investigation. As CNN reported, Mr. Conde-Pumpido told reporters that Judge Garzón’s plans threatened to turn the court “into a toy in the hands of people who are trying to do a political action.”

On Saturday, however, Público reported that Judge Garzón had accepted a lawsuit presented by a number of Spanish organizations — the Asociación Pro Dignidad de los Presos y Presas de España (Organization for the Dignity of Spanish Prisoners), Asociación Libre de Abogados (Free Lawyers Association), the Asociación Pro Derechos Humanos de España (Association for Human Rights in Spain) and Izquierda Unida (a left-wing political party) — and three former Guantánamo prisoners (the British residents Jamil El-Banna and Omar Deghayes, and Sami El-Laithi, an Egyptian freed in 2005, who was paralyzed during an incident involving guards at Guantánamo). The newspaper reported that all these groups and individuals would take part in any trial.

It is, at present, uncertain whether another attempt to stifle Judge Garzón will derail him, as he is not known for letting adversaries stand in his way. At the end of June, the Spanish Parliament pointedly passed legislation aimed at “ending the practice of letting its magistrates seek war-crime indictments against officials from any foreign country, including the United States,” on the basis that no Spanish Court should be able to judge officials of foreign countries except when the victims are Spanish or the crimes were committed in Spain.

However, on Sunday, when Público spoke to Philippe Sands, the British lawyer, and author of Torture Team, which provided much of the first-hand evidence for Garzón’s case, Sands explicitly stated that there was “no legal barrier” to prevent Judge Garzón’s prosecution from proceeding. He explained that he believed the recent decision by US Attorney General Eric Holder to appoint a special investigator to investigate cases of torture by the CIA is related to the Spanish lawsuit and the importance it has acquired because of its instigation by Judge Garzón. Sands told Público, “The recent decision by Eric Holder emphasizes how appropriate the Spanish investigation is. Many commentators believe that this decision has had a significant and direct impact in the United States, reminding people that there is an obligation to investigate torture.”

He added, “Judge Garzón’s actions have acted like a catalyst, and are supported by many people in the United States, including some members of Congress. He has reminded everybody that a blind eye cannot be turned to these actions and that there are people who are not going to let that happen.” He also explained that Eric Holder’s gesture is only a first step, “limited to cases in which interrogators may have exceeded the limits formally approved by lawyers in the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel,” that the architects of the “legal decisions that purported to justify the use of torture are not in immediate danger in the United States,” and that there is, therefore, “no legal barrier to the continuation of the Spanish investigation.”

He concluded by stating that it was “important” that Judge Garzón proceeds with the case in Spain, because, although Eric Holder “has confirmed the importance of the Convention Against Torture, he has taken only a first step that “does not really address the actions of those who were truly responsible for its violation.”

Note: I wish to extend my thanks to Carlos Sardiña Galache for alerting me to the latest developments in this important story, which was not mentioned in the English-speaking press, and for translating crucial passages.

FORUM (FORUM & FOCUS) • Jun. 19, 2009
Taking On Torture

By Stephen Rohde

As the debate continues over whether President Obama will seek criminal prosecutions against former Bush administration officials for authorizing and carrying out torture and cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment of detainees, one of the victims is taking the law into his own hands.

Jose Padilla, an America citizen labeled an "enemy combatant" by Bush, has filed an unprecedented civil lawsuit against John Yoo, former deputy attorney general in the Office of Legal Counsel, seeking $1 in damages and a declaration that Yoo violated his constitutional rights.

On June 12, in the first court ruling addressing Yoo's role in the "war on terror," U.S. District Judge Jeffrey S. White, a Bush appointee, denied Yoo's motion to dismiss the suit. White, quoting Alexander Hamilton, wrote: "[War] will compel nations the most attached to liberty to resort for repose and security to institutions which have a tendency to destroy their civil and political rights. To be more safe, they at length become willing to run the risk of being less free."

For White, the task was to "strike the proper balance of fighting a war against terror, at home and abroad, and fighting a war using tactics of terror."

Padilla was arrested in 2002 at Chicago's O'Hare Airport. After Bush declared him an enemy combatant, Padilla was transported to a naval brig in Charleston, S.C., where he was detained for three years and eight months, without charges or access to legal counsel.
We hear much about the abuse of detainees in Guantanamo and in secret CIA prisons around the world, but few are aware of the torture that is alleged to have occurred right here in America. Padilla and his legal counsel have alleged numerous abuses.

While he was detained, government officials subjected Padilla to interrogation tactics and policies such as: extreme and prolonged isolation; deprivation of light and exposure to prolonged periods of artificial light, sometimes in excess of 24 hours; extreme and deliberate variations in temperature; sleep adjustment; threats to subject him to physical abuse, including threats to cut him with a knife and pour alcohol into the wounds; threats to kill him immediately; threats to transfer him to a foreign country or Guantanamo, where he was told he would be subjected to far worse treatment; making him believe that he was being administered psychotropic drugs against his will; shackling and manacling for hours at a time; forcing him into stress positions; requiring him to wear earphones and black-out goggles during movement to, from and within the brig; introduction into his cell of noxious fumes that caused pain to the eyes and nose; lying to him about his location and the identity of his interrogators; government agents banging on the walls and bars of his cell or opening and shutting the doors to nearby empty cells; withholding of a mattress, pillow, sheet or blanket, leaving him with nothing to sleep or rest on except a cold steel slab; forced grooming; sudden and unexplained suspension of showers; sudden and unexplained removal of religious items; constant surveillance, including during the use of toilet facilities and showers; deprivation of access to any form of information about the outside world, including radio, television and newspapers from the time of his imprisonment until summer 2004, at which time he was allowed very limited access to such materials; denial of sufficient exercise and recreation and, when permitted intermittently, only in a concrete cage and often at night; denial of any mechanism to tell time in order to pray in keeping with the Muslim practice; denial of access to the Koran for most of his detention and complete deprivation or inadequate medical care.

According to the lawsuit, Yoo was "the de facto head of war-on-terrorism legal issues" and a "key member of a small, secretive, and highly-influential group of senior administration officials know as the 'War Council.'" As Yoo admits in his book, "War By Other Means," he "developed an extrajudicial, ex parte assessment of enemy combatant status followed by indefinite military detention, without notice of opportunity for a hearing of any sort ... completely preclud[ing] judicial review of the designation."

Declining Yoo's request to abstain, the court noted "the irony of this position: essentially, the allegations of the complaint are that Yoo drafted legal cover to shield review of the conduct of federal officials who allegedly deprived Padilla of his constitutional rights. Now, Yoo argues that the very drafting itself should be shielded from judicial review. Padilla's allegations here are that the creation of such legal cover was itself an unconstitutional exercise of power."

Notably, the court pointed out that like any other government official, "government lawyers are responsible for the foreseeable consequences of their conduct." For example, in Lippoldt v. Cole, 468 F.3d 1204 (10th Cir. 2006), the court found an assistant city attorney liable where she researched the law and drafted a letter denying a protest group's application for a parade permit based on the content of their speech.

Although senior city officials revised the letter, and others approved and eventually signed the denial of the permit, the court found that the drafting of a legal opinion justifying unconstitutional conduct was "a substantial factor" in the decision to deny the parade permits and violated the plaintiffs' First Amendment rights.

Similarly, in Anoushiravani v. Fishel, 3:2004CV00212 (D. Ore. July 19, 2004), in denying a motion to dismiss by two Department of Homeland Security attorneys who advised customs agents that they could constitutionally refuse to release seized property, the court held that the attorneys could be liable for their personal participation in the deprivation of constitutional rights because the seizures were a foreseeable result of their legal advice, citing United States Securities and Exchange Commission v. Fehn, 97 F.3d 1276 (9th Cir. 1996), in which the court found that a awyer may be liable for substantially assisting in a violation of the law by issuing advice in violation of the law.

According to the complaint, Attorney General John Ashcroft relied on Yoo's opinion in recommending that Padilla be taken into military custody. Yoo allegedly has represented that "he had security clearance to, and in fact did, 'read the intelligence reports' on Mr. Padilla before purporting to provide legal authority for Mr. Padilla's designation and detention."

Following a meeting of the War Council in July 2002 in which Yoo and fellow council members "'discussed in great detail how to legally justify' 'pressure techniques proposed by the CIA,' including waterboarding, mock burial, and open-handed slapping of suspects, [Yoo] wrote his August 1, 2002 memo, stating that acts of interrogation would not constitute torture unless they caused pain 'equivalent in intensity to the pain accompanying serious physical injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death.'"
Padilla alleges that Yoo "intended or was deliberately indifferent to the fact that Mr. Padilla would be subjected to the illegal policies [Yoo] set in motion and to the substantial risk that Mr. Padilla would suffer harm as a result. [Yoo] personally recommended Mr. Padilla's unlawful military detention as a suspected enemy combatant and then wrote opinions to justify the use of unlawful interrogation methods against persons suspected of being enemy combatants. It was foreseeable that the illegal interrogation policies would be applied to Mr. Padilla, who was under the effective control of the U.S. Southern Command - the same military authority that controlled Guantanamo - and was one of only two suspected enemy combatants held at the Brig."

The court held that "the specific designation as an enemy combatant does not automatically eviscerate all of the constitutional protections afforded to a citizen of the United States."
While it remains to be seen whether Obama will have the courage to go beyond his lofty rhetoric that no one is above the law, the first real opportunity to hold a key Bush lawyer accountable for his direct participation in the discredited and shameful program of torture and abuse may well come from a man who was himself victimized by that very program.

Stephen Rohde, a constitutional lawyer and author, is chair of the ACLU Foundation of Southern California and president of Interfaith Communities United for Justice and Peace.