Monday, November 5, 2012

God in a time of suffering

“Living with God in a Time of Suffering,”
Kaufman Interfaith Institute, Grand Valley University, Eberhard Center, Grand Rapids, Michigan, Tuesday October 30, 2012. Featuring Donniel Hartman, Cynthia Campbell and Omid Safi.

Comments by Binyamin ben Haim, Big Rapids, MI (November 5, 2012) 2160 words

“I don’t compose music, I listen very carefully and transcribe what I hear.” - Philip Glass

 My wife, Caryn, has observed that especially among the younger generation, any criticism is viewed as an insult. It’s not just young people, we have a tendency to see criticism as an attack and I have often been criticized for making people feel defensive and thus making it harder for them to hear what I’m saying. So, I want to say, before I begin that I applaud the Kaufman Institute on it’s twentieth year of sponsoring dialogue between Jews, Christians and Muslims. I am glad I went. If my criticisms do not resonate with anyone, then they are simply irrelevant.

I was looking forward to spending the day with people of faith exploring a question that has been at the center of my thoughts for some time. Caryn and I bought tickets for the whole day including the lunch and dinner. I wanted to maximize our experience and immersion with the group. I try to follow Philip Glass’s advice and listen very carefully and transcribe what I hear. And then Sandy, the superstorm hit, and all our attention was focused on this massively destructive event, an event that was deeply connected to the topic of the conference. Sandy was not a natural catastrophe. It was the result of what we have done to our planet’s atmosphere. I thought the conference would be an exploration of our faith at a time when suffering is increasing exponentially and our collective theodicy is in shambles.

Rabbi Hartman had interesting things to say and I tried to join the room full of appreciative listeners, but I found myself becoming agitated and after Cynthia Campell spoke, I knew I wanted to express my agitation. Something wasn’t right and I didn’t feel in sync with the room. Then, I was standing in front of the audience microphone and the first thing that came out of my mouth was, “looking out over this room full of white people, I am wondering why are there no Mexicans here? If I had been given the opportunity, I would have explained that perhaps the conference organizers should have invited one of the Catholics Priests fighting for the rights of the undocumented in Grand Rapids. Caryn and I attended a rally for the undocumented workers in Grand Rapids. We were reduced to tears listening to a mother explain that her husband had been arrested by ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement). He had no rights and was shipped off to some private prison a thousand miles away. I heard a father explain that his daughter cries in terror when he leaves the house to go to work, fearing that, like her friends daddy, her daddy will not come home.

It made me think back to the Boston abolitionists led by Frederick Douglas who had to deal with Federal Agents authorized to capture runaway slaves. When Sheriff Batchelder was killed trying to prevent the escape of a runnaway slave, Douglas commented, “when Batchelder took the position of watch dog for the slaveholders, he forfeited his right to life.” I’m not advocating murder, but I do think the moral issues are that serious. At a time when millions are being displaced, one might have thought that the plight of our Mexican Catholics would be worth including in a conference on faith in a time of suffering. After the storm, we immediately began collecting money to help the victims, understanding it is an obligation to reach out to those who are suffering. The undocumented workers in our community are suffering and we have an obligation to respond to them just as we respond to the storm victims.

We face the challenge of coping with the growing numbers of homeless refugees, not just those Americans who have lost their homes - and think about that for a moment: After World War II there was a massive building boom in America and people like my dad were buying homes for the first time. Whole subdivisions sprang up overnight. Today, millions of Americans, once securely in the middle class have lost their homes and their pensions. This is thievery on a whole new scale. Millions have been robbed and then the banks that robbed them were given trillions and then the millions were left to fend for themselves.

I never got those remarks out, but I did say that I thought this was a group of like-minded people endulging in self-congradulatory entertainment. I said that this was not really an interfaith conference, the three religions were all part of the “monotheistic enterprise” and that the enterprise was bankrupt. I never got to explain that remark either, but I wanted to say: “if we audit the books, on balance, the monotheistic enterprise of Judaism, Christianity and Islam has yielded far more pain and suffering than it has healed.” Collectively, the monotheistic enterprise, as I like to call it, has harmed more than helped.

Rabbi Hartman took my remarks as an attack on Cynthia Campbell. He pointed out that there was nothing “self-congradulatory” about her presentation, it was deep, it was honest, a searching self-criticism of her faith. It showed how far Christians have come. But, my comments were about the conference itself, not about the last speaker. The presenters and the audience were white liberals. The rabbi told stories about God, the Christian told stories about Jesus and the Moslem told stories about Muhammad and all the stories were the same. Starting with the rabbi and ending with the imam, they all but endorsed Obama with explicit statements about taxes and supporting the poor. It was an Obama rally disguised as an interfaith conference. They couldn’t even deal with one voice of dissent. No one had come to actually be challenged and the laughter and applause annoyed me.

The speakers seemed to me to be expert entertainers and Omid Sami was the best of them all. I actually liked him alot. He spoke of Martin Luther King, Jr. - Brother Martin, as those who loved him called him. He also spoke of social justice more than the others, but on the whole, he was just a better entertainer. The story of his experience passing a kidney stone was very funny and everyone was carried away with him as he suffered and later thanked God for the ability to pee without pain, followed by the story of his friend, whose daughter died. I was in tears with him, but, is that what we mean by faith in a time of suffering? The ability to laugh and cry together while all around us others are suffering?

And he said he could never be a Buddhist since he could never give up sex and meat. Wow, what an ignorant thing to say! He obviously doesn’t know anything about Buddhism. And everyone laughed, proving that no one understood a thing about Buddhists. But the rabbi topped that one with the quip that “there are no atheists in a fox hole.” What an insult to the atheist, Primo Levi, one of the great moralists of the modern world. The refusal to deal seriously with the ongoing atheist critique of modern religion was disturbing.

I just finished reading Christopher Hitchen’s last book, Mortality which is about the last eleven months of his life from the time he learned his esophageal cancer was palpable and had metastasized and he knew he was going to die relatively soon. He had many religious friends, people he had debated in the past few years. Many of them were praying for him, that is, for his soul. He didn’t appreciate it. It was like the Mormons posthumously converting Jews who died in the Holocaust. On the whole, I find atheists far more humane than the droves of psychotic theists who believe God speaks to them.

When our choice was between Hitler, Stalin and FDR, we actually had a choice. I think of those as the good old days, the happy times when we understood that we were fighting for our future because we actually thought we had a future. The idea that it was already too late was being floated in apocalyptic movies that were spawned by our megaton weapons of mass destruction. These were weapons so deadly, that even testing them to make sure they blew up and gave us a yield of 20 megatons of TNT, was so dangerous that in itself, it threatened life on the planet and when the radioactive material showed up in mothers milk, a mass movement of mothers brought an end to the testing. And in the movies we saw various versions of what our apocalyptic end would be. The one I like the most, that I thought was the most prescient, was Waterworld, which described a world where the land was gone because all the ice had melted.

I told my students of the hard choices the Iroquois and Ottawa had to make in the 1760s. Should they ally themselves with the British or the French and it turned out that neither decision made one whit of difference. They were doomed. And the 500 other tribes all made every possible choice you could imagine. Absolutely nothing worked. Elect Obama or Romney and the result will be the same... because the weather patterns that have sustained us for the past 30,000 years are about to end and they are going to end quickly. The seasons are changing rapidly and this change is destroying our crops. Michigan has lost it’s cherries because the trees blossomed and then the freeze destroyed the blossoms. That’s it, no blossoms, no cherries. This cycle of disruption of natural systems will continue. It will grow worse and specie extinction will continue to accelerate. We are loosing our bats which control our insects and we are experiencing a massive global extinction of amphibians - our canaries. Katrina, Fukashima, Sandy - see a pattern here. Sandy was not a big storm. The big storms are yet to come. As the atmosphere gains more moisture and heat, the storms become larger. What we call superstorms are just the first of the superstorms. And a superstorm much larger than this one might cause supermassive destruction, millions dying.

The planet is now warming of it’s own accord there is a natural feedback system which will increase this warming trend regardless of our carbon policies. The more the planet warms the more water is in the atmosphere, the more water is in the atmosphere the more it warms. The more it warms, the more quickly the ice melts and with less sunlight reflected back out into space, the more our planet warms. Now toss in recklessly huge amounts of fossil fuels and the planet warms even faster. And even at this late date, there are politicians arguing that global warming is a myth.

The oil companies like the banks are apparently too big to fail. Humanity, however, is not too big to fail. Our hubris and capacity for self-delusion in the face of the apocalypse is understandable. It is like what happens to the mind when you see a twenty foot wave coming at you like a steam engine. As we stand before the relentless tsunami facing us, how shall we maintain our faith? It took twenty years for theologians to begin to attempt to come to terms with the Holocaust, it’s no wonder we haven’t begun to come to terms with the impending disaster.

After the Holocaust, a few brave Christians and Jews began to look at the massive catastrophe that was the Holocaust and ask how it would be possible to speak again of a just and compassionate God. I remember Harry James Cargas, one of the early Catholics to recognize the significance of the Holocaust, which he characterized as “the single greatest Christian tragedy since the crucifixion of Christ.” Yet, the vast majority of churches of all denominations have still failed to come to grips with the fact that every Jew murdered was murdered by someone who had been born or baptised a Christian. And the blood of those innocent people who died was enough to make Jesus, Himself, cry to His Father, “erase my name from human memory. I cannot bear the legacy which I have left upon the earth. They who worship Me as God are killing my people.” But God was unmoved and the killing continued. This was not just a challenge for Christians, as the flood of atheist critiques make clear, the destruction is woven into our theology as is the self-delusion that religious people are somehow better than atheists and that all the centuries of religiously driven persecution as well as the current rise of fudamentalism, does not fall on our shoulders. The blood of our collective victims, not just the Christian ones, but all of the victims of the Jews, Muslims and Christians cry out from the earth declaring our prayers and our faith, blasphemy.

That is what I thought the conference was going to be about.

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