“Friendship, War, Memory, and Community: Memorial Day Weekend 2016”

A guest sermon I offered this weekend at First Christian Church – Disciples of Christ in Eugene, Oregon.

 

“Friendship, War, Memory, and Community: Memorial Day Weekend 2016”

Good morning and thank you so much for offering me the honor of sharing some thoughts with you today, on this Sunday of Memorial Day weekend. Though I have not served in our military, many of my family members have been soldiers, both here in the US and in other parts of the world where they’ve lived. My grandfather was a US Army infantryman in France during World War I. My father served during the Korean War, though he was never shipped overseas.

My mother’s family are Moroccan Jews who now mostly live in Israel. During World War II, my mom’s family lived in Casablanca, which was under German occupation. During the 1940s France had ruled Morocco as a colony, but the Nazis took it over not long after Paris fell. My maternal grandmother’s sister, Rosette, joined the French underground, and nobody knew much about what she did. She was gone for weeks at a time and then would suddenly show up for a few days. One time she showed up late at night at the home of one of her sisters with a small group of men. Her terrified sister let them in and, in later years, all she could say about the visit was that the men brought a whole bunch of weapons into the house, hid them in a back room, and Rosette told her to just say nothing and people would come by soon to get them.

Then there are my many, many aunts and uncles and cousins who have served and currently serve in the Israeli army. My mother’s brother, my Uncle Yossi, was the sole survivor of his army unit during the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Anwar Sadat had launched a very effective surprise attack and the army was scrambling to call up reservists. When Yossi’s unit’s call-up notice went out over the radio, he went to get his boots from their usual place, but couldn’t find them. Turned out his mother had been tidying and had moved them. By the time he found them and hustled to the base, his tank unit had already been sent to the front. The commanding officer placed him with a different departing unit. As it happened, all of the others in his intended unit were killed in an explosion. The misplaced boots saved his life.

Yossi is an interesting case in point. In addition to the trauma and survivor’s guilt he’s had to bear over that pair of boots, he also has told my mom about terrible recurring memories and dreams from his experience in combat. In particular, he is haunted by a flash moment in which he and an Egyptian soldier were suddenly face to face, a few meters apart. The two men shared a moment of horrified shock and recognition, and then both moved to fire. Yossi fired first, but for years struggled to cope with the image of the Egyptian young man’s body.

On this weekend when we contemplate those of our fellow Americans who have fallen in battle, we are drawn to personal memories of war, memories that become family stories that get passed through the generations. A lot of those stories give us insight into the meaning of friendship. In the Book of Proverbs, we find these words: “There are friends we have who cause us great harm, but there’s also the kind of friend who sticks by you even more than a brother.”[1] And in Ecclesiastes, also on the theme of friendship, we read, “Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their toils: If either of them falls down, one can help the other up. But pity the person who falls and has no one to help them up.”[2]

I’d like to consider these two short, simple biblical passages in light of the themes that Memorial Day weekend evokes – themes of war, friendship, memory, and community. Some of what I have to share comes from people whose experiences with war have left them passionately opposed to war in all or most of its forms, and in sharing those thoughts I want to be clear that I honor in the deepest way the sacrifices of our fallen soldiers and the pain and loss of their families. We need to be able, in a house of God, to attempt to look at war through lenses of honesty and concern for the divine image that is present in every human being, though we also need to stand in solidarity and true friendship with all who are serving or have served, and with all who have given their lives for us in times of war. We need to do both, and doing both with sensitivity and candor honors the dead and the truth alike.

I’d like to start with the words of Vera Brittain. She served as an English army nurse during
World War I, and wrote one of the most widely read memoirs of the war, Testament of Youth. In it she describes her years as a female student at Oxford – at a time when few

Vera Brittain

 

women went to university – and the beginnings of her romance with a brilliant fellow student named Roland. She includes many of the letters the two lovers sent one another after Roland quit school to enlist. Roland’s early letters describe his enthusiasm for getting into battle, and his later letters from the battlefield become increasingly disillusioned and numb. Of course, like so many European young men of that generation, Roland never made it home.

Continue reading ““Friendship, War, Memory, and Community: Memorial Day Weekend 2016””

Exploring Connections btw Midrash & New Testament

I just had the pleasure of presenting a two-part series on connections between Midrash and New Testament writings to an interfaith audience in Corvallis, Oregon. We met at the Church of the Good Samaritan (Episcopal), and a local synagogue, Congregation Beit Am, co-sponsored the course. (Shout outs to Rev. Simon Justice and Rabbi Benjamin Barnett of the respective congregations!) Members of at least 3 other Christian churches in the area attended as well.

I used PowerPoint slideshows and I think they were really effective.

I’m using my blog to share links to them on Slideshare.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

You can find them here:

 

I’m interested in getting feedback, or in coming to your community to teach. It works great with a Jewish, Christian, or interfaith group.
thanks!

Broken Conversations

Was talking with my fabulous wife, Melissa, this morning, about immigration issues in the U.S. One of my take-aways was that this subject, like many others in our society, has become so polarized and politicized that it’s virtually impossible to have a functional and thoughtful conversation about it.

Case in point:

We both are horrified by the xenophobia and racism Trump uses in talking about Mexican and Latino immigrants – particularly undocumented immigrants. And we both fully support comprehensive immigration reform including a path to citizenship. That said, we know someone who has a beef with current U.S. immigration policy and who, as a result of that beef, sometimes expresses support for Trump’s candidacy (even though he readily agrees that Trump is a racist and a demagogue). Ironically, his beef is not with Democratic proposals for immigration reform; no, his beef is with the H1B-Visa program, the one that allows American companies, often in hi-tech, to hire highly skilled workers from other countries to do things like computer engineering, bio-science, and medical professional work. His deal was that he got laid off by a major tech corporation, which replaced him with a cheaper professional from a poorer country. Before his last day on the job, he was required to train his replacement.

I felt frustrated and threatened to hear that this person was even considering supporting Trump – given his overall values and past voting history, it came as a shock. He also really likes Bernie. But he has come to think of all “establishment” candidates as part of a (legal) immigration system that makes it harder for him to get work in his field at a decent rate of pay. Bringing up the fact that he could easily stand for reform of the H1B-Visa program while still advocating for a path to citizenship for the millions of undocumented, low-wage-earning immigrants may give him pause for thought, but my wife rightly observed that the emotional overlay for the whole subject of “immigration” writ large is clearly charged for him and may override other considerations. 

Unfortunately, immigration is a topic that falls into the category of a broken conversation. Meaning we have no way, in our mainstream culture, and very few ways in our alternative cultural settings, to have a healthy, constructive conversation about the issue. And in an election year this is an even more broken conversation.

I’m asking myself what might be the components of a not broken conversation – a constructive conversation. I think they include:

  • being able to name all of the stakeholders in an issue and have some understanding and empathy for their legitimate concerns and needs
  • searching for solutions that seek to balance different legitimate concerns
  • considering the different values that are at stake and different ways to balance them
  • refraining from black and white thinking or demonizing an entire stakeholding community

We have other broken conversations in this country. Like guns.

And Israel/Palestine is a thoroughly broken conversation, not just in the US but all over the world.

Broken conversations frighten me.

 

Voted for Bernie in Primary, Expect to Vote for Hillary in November

In Oregon we’ve had vote-by-mail for a long time – since before my wife and I arrived here in 2003. It works really well, we get consistently high voter participation, and officials of both major parties don’t seem to have any complaints about the security of the system. I

ballothappen to be someone who would always feel uncertain about my vote being recorded properly if I used a touch-screen system to vote, so it feels good when I take a black or blue ink ball point and fill in the little oval next to each of my choices.

I filled out my ballot today, May 4th, even though I have until the 17th to submit it. (Another nice thing – no missed work-time waiting in unpredictable lines at a polling station). As someone who has written a fair amount of pro-Hillary stuff, it might surprise some of my friends to see that I voted for Bernie.

I voted for Bernie because my politics are closer to his politics than any other candidate in the race. But, I also voted for him because I believe Hillary is going to be the nominee, and because I want to strengthen the place of the policies and ideals that Bernie’s campaign has emphasized within the Democratic party. I want Bernie’s people to have some good leverage when they sit down with Hillary’s people to hammer out what kind of influence on the D agenda Bernie’s ideas will have, in exchange for his clear and energetic support for her once she’s the nominee.

I hesitated before I cast my vote for him in part because of the Bernie or Bust movement, which is a cause I do not want to lend any support to. I very nearly voted for Hillary, not as a lesser evil, but as an impressive and strong Democratic presidential candidate in her own right. Assuming things play out as expected and she wins the nomination, I plan to campaign for Hillary and vote for her in November. My vote for Bernie was not a vote against Hillary.

B or H

As a Jewish-American, it felt surreal and stunning to find myself, for the first time in my life, casting a vote for a Jewish person for president, just as it felt surreal and stunning the first time I voted for an African-American person for president. I am expecting that the first time I cast my vote for a woman for president it will also feel remarkable and exciting in terms of what it represents for the social progress of our country.

My vote for Bernie was not a vote against Hillary.

I’m grateful – profoundly – to Bernie Sanders for running a campaign that eschewed corporate financing and raised small amounts from millions of people. I’m doubly grateful for the way he and his supporters have put income inequality, greed, poverty, and the realities of a rigged economy firmly on the radar of our popular discourse. This is huge. I’m also grateful to Bernie for mounting a serious and productive challenge against Hillary, because I think she’s a better candidate for it, and I think her campaign team understands how important the issues Sanders’ campaign has stressed in a much more thorough way than they might have if they hadn’t faced this challenge.

All that said, I’m not sure I would have voted for Bernie if the dynamics of the primary race were different. If I thought he still had a serious chance of being the nominee, I think I’d have probably voted for Clinton. I’m happy with the idea of either of them carrying the torch against Trump this November. I think she gets less credit than she deserves for her achievements and her commitment to a wide array of progressive causes. I think the scrutiny Bernie’s campaign has brought to bear on all candidates who have had cozy relationships with Wall Street interests is fair, but I don’t believe it’s disqualifying, nor do I think it’s fair to paint Hillary as some kind of corporate shill, and I think it’s seriously loony to paint her as “the same” as the Republicans or as some kind of evil right-wing crony posing as a liberal.

If I had my way, I’d like Obama to be able to serve another term. I can’t have that. I’ll take Bernie or Hillary over Trump a zillion times over, any way you slice it.