Sunday, July 28, 2013

Cuba Si! Celebrating the achievements of this island of resistance to US imperialism

My friend Carolfrances Likins loves Cuba and has traveled there many times. This Friday at ICUJP she gave a reflection celebrating the amazing achievements of this small, but mighty island that has valiantly resisted US imperialism for 60 years.
      A couple of months ago, a Cuban Quaker pastor came to visit us with a somewhat different perspective. He told us that when Castro took over, the churches were pressured into giving information about all their members--not only names, but also addresses and occupations. This led to a drastic decline in church membership due to fear of reprisals. We were told that Fidel Castro's attitude towards the church changed in 1984 when the Rev Jesse Jackson came to Cuba and negotiated the release of twenty-two Americans being held in Cuba after an invitation by Cuban president Fidel Castro.[24
    From that time on, religious groups have been able to practice their religion more or less freely as long as they don't criticize the government. Church membership has increased and members no longer feel they are facing discrimination.
    According to Amnesty International, however, political dissent is still being stifled in Cuba. Those of us who care about freedom of speech and press need to continue to speak out on behalf of those who are being jailed or persecuted for their political beliefs.
    I am also not comfortable with the use of violence, whether practiced by John Brown, Che Guavara, or by George Washington.
    No government and no leader is perfect, of course. Given the US track record in Guantanamo and other parts of the world, the US government has no right to criticize Cuba for human rights abuses. We need to clean up our own act before sanctioning Cuba for its political sins.
     A member of ICUJP also pointed out that there is discrimination in Cuba against the Afro-Cubans. But of course the same is true here in the United States, as the Trayvon Martin case makes all too clear.
     I agree with Carolfrances that there is much to celebrate about Cuba, and totally support lifting the embargo and travel restrictions to Cuba. These absurd sanctions are undeserved and do nothing to help the Cuban people.
     I hope someday to visit Cuba and learn more first-hand about this remarkable country and its achievements.


What's not to celebrate about a small country standing up to the greatest imperial power on Earth for 60 years? Yes, today, July 26th, is not only Moncada Day – the day Cubans celebrate as the beginning of their Revolution – but it is its sixtieth anniversary, making Cuba the only country on Earth that has survived, and in so many ways flourished, for six decades of defiance to U.S. imperialism. “We may make mistakes on our path,” Cubans tell us, “But they’re our mistakes.”

Sixty years ago today, Fidel Castro Ruz and other Cubans stormed the Moncada Barracks in an unsuccessful bid to arm the people against the ruthless U.S.-backed dictatorship. How can we who cherish non-violence honor such an act? I think of it much like John Brown’s attack on Harpers Ferry to arm enslaved people, and we must understand that, in both cases, it was a last resort. The Cuban people had organized themselves to take power by ballot box; Castro himself was a candidate for national parliament, and it was widely assumed that he and his party would win massively, but dictator Batista cancelled elections and brutally cracked down on the people. And even Rev. James Lawson, when asked if he didn’t agree that revolutionary armed struggle was sometimes necessary and justified, replied, “No, there has never been an armed revolution that has brought on lasting change – except for Cuba.”

So why do we celebrate the Cuban Revolution? I don’t know; maybe because we cherish literacy and we know how Cuba brought their population up from being about-half illiterate to achieving just about full literacy – U.N.-recognized – in about a year, and then went on to offer all levels of education tuition-free, further sharing it with the world by sending teachers to volunteer wherever they’re called for (including war-ravished Nicaragua), developed a multilingual literacy program used in many countries, and bring students in to study for free in Cuba.

Or maybe it’s because in our struggle for universal health care, we have to be impressed to read Cuban health statistics that are on the par with or better than countries with ten times the GDP and with no crushing embargo, because of their free, preventative-care-based, not-for-profit health care system. Or that they both train doctors – again for free – from all over the world, and have had more doctors volunteering in poor countries than has had the World Health Organization.

 Or maybe we celebrate Cuba because their environmental program – from urban gardens and organic agriculture to alternative energy – shows what we could do without a system where the polluters get to make the decisions.

 Or maybe it’s because Cuba shows us a different model of democracy, from its grassroots, day-to-day, organization-based kind to the electoral kind in which, because people nominate candidates in their neighborhoods and because private money is not allowed in campaigns, they typically have 98% turn-out in national and local elections, with no mandatory voting.


My friend goes on to celebrate Che Guevara as the hero of this Revolution but I am not comfortable with this part of her post. Che had some admirable qualities, but he did not practice or advocate nonviolence and therefore I must draw the line and say he has no place among those I regard as true heroes--those willing to lay down their own lives, but not kill others, for what they believe.

Such self-sacrificing heroes are rare, but they are what we need to overcome the domination system that oppresses and dehumanizes us.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Trekking from Boulder to Taos....from street poetry to Kit Carson

Jill and I had a blast at the FGC Gathering in Greeley, CO, where I led a workshop on the Brintons and did a book signing for my new biography: "Howard and Anna Brinton: Reinventors of Quakerism in the 20th Century."  The book signing and the workshop went very well, and Jill loved being among Friends (and they loved her: an Evangelical passionate about peace and justice, like Shane Claiborne!).

Road trips are fun, so I'd like to share a few highlights:

On our way to the Gathering we visited with Quaker friends in Flagstaff and Santa Fe and had a blast. We also paid a visit on Bill and Genie Durland, old friends who were my teachers at Pendle Hill. Bill is a brilliant and passionate activist, lawyer, scholar who has just written a new book on economics called "The Price of Folly." He's also taken up writing radical plays that are being produced in Colorado Springs, that haven of  right wing Christians and air force. Amazing man, especially considering he is over 80 years old. (I want to be like him at that age!)

On our way back we visited friends of Jill's in Boulder who were very hospitable and made us lunch. We also hung out in a park near the public library and watched the locals go tubing down a swift mountain streams. So nice just to see the locals, mostly young people and families, enjoying themselves.

We parked in a lot that said "Free for library users" and I asked a gray-haired, bearded gentleman how they could tell if someone was a library user.

"If he has a beard," he replied with a smile.

We also got into a conversation with a woman working on violence prevention and shared our stories and our cards. We felt as if we had come home!

Later we went to the Pearl Street Mall and enjoyed its vibrant street life. We watched a skinny, bearded gray-haired black guy from "St Kit," a yoga master and human pretzel who charmed us with his personality and astonished us with his ability to do things like touch his toes with his elbows. We also saw jugglers, musicians, and a street poet named Bill Keys whom we spent time talking to. (See He writes poetry on demand and I was inspired to write this poem for him:

Song of ourselves in Boulder

(for Bill Keys)

Here on Pearl Street,
where no two people look alike,
we know we’re really in Boulder—
the sweet honey in the rock
of poetry—
when we see a street poet
with shaggy gray locks
who plays a soprano
staccato, pizzicato
with great earnestness,
a big man with a small machine
from a lithographic age,
who makes the passersby smile
we know we’re in Boulder when we see
a protozoic rock
part like the Red Sea
releasing a flood of children
when we hear drums pounding,
and that antique typewriter sounding
music to the ears of America’s bards
Snyder, Ginsberg, Whitman, street poets all,
Tapping on the keys of the heart
We compose ourselves on Pearl Street
Where nothing is out of tune.

On Sunday we went to Colorado Springs, where we attended meeting for worship at the new QUaker meetinghouse. Jill was pleased it was located in a low-income neighborhood. Friends meet in a former church building that is very plain and simple. We were warmly greeted by a Friend named Molly and later by my old Friends Linda Seger and Peter Lavarre. Linda was clerk at Santa Monica Meeting and presided at the wedding of my wife Kathleen. She is a very gifted writer who has a doctorate in drama and theology. She became known as a script consultant and wrote a book that gained her an international reputation. She has also written books on liberal politics and religion ("Jesus Rode a Donkey") and the spiritual challenges of success. It was a joy to spend time with her and to catch up on her life.

From Colorado Springs we traveled to Taos where Jill and I parted company for a while: she went shopping for clothes and gifts and I explored the art galleries. I discovered some amazing artists, which made my day. Especially noteworthy was an artist named Pierre Delattre whose work was so joyful and romantic I was inspired to write a poem for Jill.

Taos is a magical and earthy place--a place of adobe and turquoise, picaresque and slightly run down, an artist's and mystic's haven. A busy highway flows through it but the side streets are peaceful and delightful, full of shops and galleries. We went to the home of Kit Carson, Taos' most famous resident,  and was fascinated to learn his story. He was a small man (only 5 foot 5 inches) with tremendous courage, strength and faith. He married two Indian women, one of whom died and the other divorced him, and finally settled down with a Spanish woman in Taos. One of the most moving parts of his story was when he tried to save a white woman who was shot in the heart by some marauding Indians. He found her clutching a novel celebrating him as a larger-than-life hero. He was so disgusted by the novel he wanted it thrown in the fire and destroyed.

We loved strolling through Taos and making little discoveries, like the abundance of hollyhocks (one of Jill's favorite flowers). We found Mexican restaurant that serves gluten free meals and has excellent desserts, including a Mexican chocolate cake that is not gluten-free but is to die for.

We drove from Taos to Grant, NM. We were disappointed that the nearby Acoma pueblo is closed because of an Indian holiday, but we were happy to spend a quiet evening in a motel, a haven from a big storm that dumped a lot of rain last night. We soaked in a hot tub, read books, watch a little Netflix ("As Good as It Gets," an appropriate title for our journey).

We went to Prescott on Tuesday, visited with some of Jill's missionary friends, and then went to visit friends of Jill's whose home burned down in the recent fire in Yarnell. So sad to see the devastation of that little community of 300 families, one third of whom lost their homes. Yet Jill's friend had a wonderful spirit and there is hope that with people like her and her husband, the town can make a comeback.

On our way back through the Arizona desert it was blazing hot so we took a dip (we called it a baptism) in the Colorado River along with a Mexican family. This brought back many fond memories of family excursions to the Colorado and was a great way to end our trip!

Saturday, July 20, 2013

"Oh what sorrow! oh, what pity! That tears and blood should mix like rain and terror come again": reflections on Trayvon Martin

In the aftermath of the George Zimmerman verdict, I am haunted by these two sets of photos. One is cleverly photoshopped to show what Trayon Martin would look like if he were white, and what George Zimmerman would look like if he were black. I can't help seeing the boy on the left as an all American kid, and the man on the right as a criminal. I realize how deeply and unconsciously influenced I have been by the pervasive (though often subtle) racism of our culture.
The picture below shows Trayvon Martin and Emmett Till, the African American boy murdered in Mississippi after allegedly flirting with a white woman. He was savagely beaten by whites and thrown into the Tallahatchie River. HIs murderers were acquitted amid public outcry in a case that received national attention, much like Trayvon Martin's During Friday morning's meeting of Interfaith Communities United for Justice and Peace, Bonnie Blustein, a Unitarian friend of mine, gave this powerful and prophetic reflection about Trayvon Martin and the current state of race relations in the United States. She teaches math at a community college and isn't afraid to share her passion for justice with her students, some of whose comments she shares. Bonnie was part of a vigil and march that was organized by the First AME Church of Pasadena on Wednesday, in which Jill and I took part. Bonnie begins her
reflection with this poem that Langston Hughes
wrote about Emmet Till and includes some incisive comments about the prophet Amos.

Oh what sorrow!
oh, what pity!
Oh, what pain
That tears and blood
Should mix like rain
And terror come again

Come again?
Where has terror been?
On vacation? Up North?
In some other section
Of the nation, OR WORLD?
Lying low, unpublicized?
Masked—with only
Jaundiced eyes
Showing through the mask?

Oh, what sorrow,
Pity, pain,
That tears and blood
Should mix like rain
And terror, fetid hot,
Yet clammy cold

Langston Hughes wrote this poem in 1955, after the brutal murder of 14-year-old Emmet Till in Mississippi.  I made only a few changes.  If you look up the details of Emmet Till’s story, including the acquittal of his murderers (who later confessed), it eerily prefigures Trayvon Martin’s.
Emmet’s mother courageously insisted on an open-casket funeral in Chicago, and the images of the tortured body galvanized many – including youth – into action.  Myrlie Evers reflected that the Emmet Till case resonated so strongly “because it said not even a child was safe from racism and bigotry and death." 
A middle-aged black woman I spoke with at a meeting and march on Wednesday, organized by FAME of Pasadena, had the same thought:  “We have told our children not to act stupid, not to give anyone an excuse to stereotype them, but what are we supposed to tell them now?”
All I could think to say was, “I guess we need to tell them to get active in the movement to change this racist system.”  Immediately she said, “That’s right.”
I’ve talked a lot this week with my summer-school students about the George Zimmerman trial.  (Yes, it was Zimmerman on trial, and not Trayvon!)  At least three out of the 24 students were involved in the protests in Crenshaw/Leimert Park – the first time they’d done anything like that.  They were contemptuous of the “kids with nothing better to do” who were widely seen on TV trashing cars and beating up bystanders, but insisted that most of the marchers, like themselves, were serious.
Many have their own stories of racial profiling:

A black student who was asked by Culver City cops, “What are you doing in Culver City?” He lives there. 
A Latina student stopped in Whittier by cops there who asked, “What are you doing here?  No Hispanics live here.” 
Another black student who was stopped by cops who came up to his car from behind, claiming that his front window tint was too dark.  It was standard factory issue, and how could they see it from the rear?  He suspects it was his skin that was too dark for the cops. 
And another student who was leaving a Hollywood club with a group of friends who were surrounded by half a dozen cop cars as they got ready to pull out of the parking lot.  Next thing he knew, a cop was pointing a shotgun at the head of the friend standing next to him.
What are we supposed to tell these young people, except to get active in the movement to change this racist system?
What are we ourselves supposed to do?

The FAME event Wednesday started with Bible study of the Book of Amos.
Describing the sins of the leaders of his society, Amos said that “at such a time the prudent person keeps silent, for it is an evil time.”  But Amos himself was not prudent, and he did not counsel prudence.

We are told that Amos was a herdsman and grower of figs, a working man.  And what did he see as the sins of “Israel”?  Turning judgment into wormwood and gall, and the fruit of righteousness into hemlock.  A pretty good description of the Zimmerman verdict, secret “National Security” courts, prosecutions of whistle-blowers, and many other developments in the last few years.

But Amos was enraged by much more:  Imposing heavy rents on the poor.  Exacting tributes of grain from them.  Accepting bribes and turning aside the poor.  Storing up violence and robbery in their palaces.  Storing up.  Accumulating wealth robbed from people like Amos:  from the poor, the working people.
Accumulating wealth by exploiting the masses has reached an extreme in today’s world, from Bangladesh to South Africa to Brazil and right here in LA.  This racist system has a name, and its name is CAPITALISM. 

The industrial cities of England, notably Bristol and Liverpool, grew up as hubs of the 17th-century slave trade.  In the US, it was not only the southern plantation owners who amassed their riches by selling the products of the harrowing exploitation of black people; it was also the New England merchants who built the foundation of their commercial empire on the slave trade.  Ezra Stiles imported slaves while president of Yale. Six slave merchants served as mayor of Philadelphia.  Eight US presidents owned slaves during their presidencies.

Michelle Alexander makes a compelling case that the criminalization of black youth – we could add immigrants – and their mass incarceration is the latest incarnation of slavery and of the Jim Crow racism of a century ago.  George Zimmerman was right in tune with law enforcement and the mass media when he looked at an unarmed 17-year-old black youth and saw a dangerous criminal. 

And when George Zimmerman killed Trayvon, he was right in tune with the drone attack, personally authorized by President Obama, that killed 16-year-old Abdulrahman (a US citizen, if that matters) in Yemen two years ago. 
The ramifications of the Zimmerman verdict go far beyond “Stand Your Ground” and permissive gun laws.  They even go far beyond racist stereotypes and prejudice.

So what are we supposed to do?
We are called now to seek and dig out the roots of racism in exploitation and super-exploitation, in the divisiveness intentionally fostered by the few in order to divert the righteous anger of the masses, in capitalism itself. 

We are called now to seek another way of living, one in which love, instead of money, is the currency of society.  One without exploitation, in which goods are produced to be shared as needed, not to be sold for profit.   One in which, in the words of Amos, our people “shall rebuild the waste cities, and inhabit them; and they shall plant vineyards, and drink their wine; they shall also make gardens, and eat the fruit of them.” 
What are we supposed to tell our young people? 

That they, themselves, must develop their ability and confidence to envision, articulate, and spread an increasingly clear vision of the world that is not, but still can be.
That that future is in their hands, and in the hands of the masses in motion from Bangladesh to South Africa to Brazil and right here in LA.

That one day tears and blood will no longer mix like rain, and terror will no longer remain. 

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Fasting with the hunger strikers at Guantanamo and here in our state prisons

Every year since 2001, when I first began fasting during Ramadan, I ask myself (and God): is this really what you want me to do? My answer is usually pretty clear: I'd prefer not to.

But God's answer is also clear: how can you refuse? Look at what is happening around you! Is this the kind of world you want? Do you want to go on feasting when some of your brothers and sisters are hungry, and when some are on a hunger strike for justice?

Given how our nation is treating people in our prisons, both at home and in places like Guantanamo, it seems a good idea to skip a meal or two and to ask ourselves: what can we do to end torture and inhumane treatment of prisoners?

It is amazing how clear the mind becomes when the belly is empty!

Consider situation in our prisons in California, where inmates are being subjected to what our courts are calling "cruel and unusual punishment," a violation of the US Constitution. Consider what is happening in Guantanamo, where detainees have had their charges dismissed and yet are told they will be kept incarcerated indefinitely. As a result of these injustices, nearly 29,000 inmates in California prisons are fasting for decent living conditions, and many of the detainees in Guantanamo are continuing their hunger strike, much to America's shame. Torture and inhumane punishment have become as American as apple pie, and drones. (See

Fasting during Ramadan is supposed to teach us, viscerally, to empathize with the poor, the marginalized. Jesus fasted and reminded us that the blessed are those who "hunger and thirst" after justice....

So this year I dedicate my fast not only to the One who told us to "love mercy, do justice and walk humbly"--but also to the hunger strikers at Guantanamo and our California state prisons.

I invite you to join me in praying for them, remembering the words of the apostle Paul:

"Treat those who are aliens/guests among you as if they were angels in disguise. Treat those in prison as if you are in prison with them. Treat those being tortured as if it is happening to your own body" (Hebrew 13).

If Americans, and especially our elected officials, took these words to heart, we would not be arguing so bitterly about prison and immigration reform. We'd be treating others as we would like to be treated....with respect and dignity and love.

You can help the hunger strikers by fasting, prayer, contacting your elected officials and letting them know what you think, and also by writing to the detainees in Guantanamo (as I recommended in a previous blog -- see