Monday, May 29, 2006

Memorial Day: Dying in Vain

Where have all the soldiers gone?
Long time passing
Where have all the soldiers gone?
Long time ago
Where have all the soldiers gone?
Gone to graveyards every one
When will they ever learn?
When will they ever learn?

On this Memorial Day, let us celebrate the fallen warriors, the soldiers that marched off to fight in the politicians' wars under the illusion that they were defending our freedom, the young men, and now young women, who died in vain.

At the beginning of this weekend, about a hundred of us gathered under sunny skies in Santa Cruz Mission Plaza for a Peace Walk organized by a local chapter of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship. There was an altar on the grass flanked by two large exhibits containing the photographs and names of several hundred American servicemen and women killed in Iraq, thus personalizing our remembrance of the fallen. Holding flowers and Buddhist prayer flags, we marched silently down into town, along the river, and up Pacific Avenue past the shops and the tourists. On our return, we unrolled a huge scroll containing, symbolically, the names of 28,000 Iraqi soldiers and civilians killed since the invasion three years ago (a low estimate, I suspect). The event ended with a metta meditation, sending compassion out from Santa Cruz to our poor, war-torn world.

President Bush laid a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington National Cemetery this morning. "I am in awe of the men and women who sacrifice for the freedom of the United States of America," he reportedly said. And just how, pray tell, did their deaths in Iraq or Afghanistan do anything for our freedom or liberty here in the United States? It is well known by now that Saddam Hussein did not have weapons of mass destructions, did not consort with Al-Qaeda, and posed no threat to this country. He was a tyrant, like many of the foreign leaders our presidents have supported in the past. But how does toppling him, in defiance of international law, make us secure? The logic of patriotic ideology is absurd. I sympathize with the hard life of a soldier. But I see no reason, as the bumper sticker has it, to "Thank a Soldier for your Freedom."

My ex-wife's brother died in Quang Tri Province, Vietnam, in June of 1967, two month's shy of his 21st birthday. We found his name on the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, surrounded by 50,000 others. He died for a lie, the Tonkin Gulf incident. His death left a hole in the family and his father never recovered. How many times has that story been repeated? Now soldiers are marching off to Iraq and Afghanistan, not to defend democracy and freedom but to build an empire and protect our access to oil. More lies. How many deaths, how many mutilations and maimings does it take, before the soldiers stop marching off to war? How many revelations and shameful exposes will it take before our politicians stop putting our finest in harm's way?

Who do we blame for the prevalence of war, the politician or the solider? Pete Seeger's "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?" laments the ubiquity of war. Buffy Saint-Marie's anthem from the 1960's, "Universal Soldier," picks on the soldier:

He's five feet two and he's six feet four
He fights with missiles and with spears
He's all of 31 and he's only 17
He's been a soldier for a thousand years

He's a Catholic, a Hindu, an atheist, a Jain,
a Buddhist and a Baptist and a Jew
and he knows he shouldn't kill
and he knows he always will
kill you for me my friend and me for you

And he's fighting for Canada,
he's fighting for France,
he's fighting for the USA,
and he's fighting for the Russians
and he's fighting for Japan,
and he thinks we'll put an end to war this way

And he's fighting for Democracy
and fighting for the Reds
He says it's for the peace of all
He's the one who must decide
who's to live and who's to die
and he never sees the writing on the walls

But without him how would Hitler have
condemned him at Dachau
Without him Caesar would have stood alone
He's the one who gives his body
as a weapon to a war
and without him all this killing can't go on

He's the universal soldier and he
really is to blame
His orders come from far away no more
They come from him, and you, and me
and brothers can't you see
this is not the way we put an end to war.

She gets it right in the end. The orders to fight "come from him, and you, and me," all of us who subscribe to the idea war can be a path to peace. Our freedoms must be defended. The Homeland is in peril! Democracy requires the blood of martyrs. I prefer not to blame the victim, however. Soldiers are recruited, not only by ideological slogans but also by conditions. Poverty and lack of employment possibilities impell healthy young people into the military. Our celebrated "all-volunteer" Army is populated with people of color who can't get a job, along with middle-class white kids who who couldn't afford to go to college. Some just wanted to "see the world," but not necessarily to visit exotic places and kill the natives.

The villains most responsible for war, and for the deaths in vain of hundreds of thousands of someone's sons and daughters, are the corporate profiteers and the corrupt politicians who scare us with lies about "Communists!" and "terrorists!" to hide their hidden agendas. They twisted the tragedy of September 11th for the own purposes, and have now embroiled the United States in an endless war in the Middle East, a new crusade that generates new "terrorists" as fast as it kills them. When will it ever end?

On this Memorial Day, 2006, let us remember the the fallen warriors, our children, who marched off to foreign lands for a fake cause where they died in vain. Let us also remember the ones who sent them there.

Saturday, May 27, 2006

Bread and Circuses

I have never watched "American Idol" so I consequently missed the finale Wednesday when a white "soul singer" named Taylor Hicks (have they redfined soul while I've been unplugged from the TV cable?) was declared the winner. What caught my attention in the news of this event spread over the front page of all the newspapers was that over 63 million votes were cast for the new idol, more votes than President Bush received in the last election. At least half that number watch this show every week. What are these people thinking?

When I was growing up, Ted Mack's "Amateur Hour," esstentially the same kind of talent show, was popular. Raw talent from the hinterlands competed for prizes and recognition, the 15 minutes of fame Andy Warhol hoped we would all have. Americans love to root for the underdog. That helps to explain the popularity of the Rocky movies. We are an incredibly generous people. We open our pockets to the victims of global natural disasters, like the tsunami in southeast Asia.

We also are a murderous bunch who slaughter the innocent in our quest for power and world domination. Just now we are uncovering an Iraqi "My Lai" where angry U.S. Marines indiscriminatly killed men, women and children (click here for story). Our young people respond to the unspoken recruitment slogan: "Join the Army. Travel to exotic distant lands; meet exciting, unusual people and kill them." The son of a friend is currently in Iraq, flexing his young machismo, and he told his parents than when his tour of duty is over he will return as an employee of one of the private security firms (in other words, a mercenary soldier).

President Bush has told the country that we are engaged in a global war on terror, one that will last for a very long time. But unlike in previous wars, we have not been called upon to sacrifice anything. Sure, gas has gotten a little expensive. But there is little evidence in this country that we are a nation at war. There is no draft. The body bags are hidden. In fact, the President told us that the best thing we could do, to keep the economy afloat, was to shop . If it's good for business, it's good for America. And he also suggested the we visit Disneyland, if we can afford the gas.

Bread and circuses. It's a phrase used by the Roman poet Juvenal to lament the falling heroism of Romans after the decline of the Roman empire. “Two things only the people anxiously desire—bread and circuses,” he wrote. The government kept the people happy by distributing free food and staging huge spectacles in the Coliseum. When I visited the Coliseum in Rome last summer they were getting ready for a free concert by Elton John. We are an easy people to please. We're satisfied with watching desperate housewives, amateur survivalists competing for money in remote locations, and entertainers hoping to be the next "idol." Our government doesn't even have to pass out free food to keep us happy, content, and silent.

Am I the only one who thinks he's living in a nightmare? We should know better. We've read about the passive German people during the rise of Hitler's regime. I've been studying the history of Argentina in preparation for a month in Buenos Aires this summer when I'll study Spanish. The Argentinians suffered under a murderous military dictatorship in the 1970s. Suspected revolutionaries and terrorists, many in their teens, were arrested by the police and "disappeared." Over 30,000 cannot be found. It was later revealed that some were dropped alive out of airplanes over the bay. Pregnant women were imprisoned, the babies were adopted by families in favor with the regime and the mothers killed. Can horrors like this happen here?

Bread and circuses. Keep watching your TV. "Dont worry, be happy."

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

The Coarsening of Society

Recently, my pal Jim introduced me to an intriguing new phrase, "the coarsening of society." He's a cantankerous old fart like me and was amazed that I'd never heard it before. It's all over the internet, he said. My first reaction was that "coarsening of society" was a new verbal weapon, like "political correctness," invented by the socially conservative right wing with which to beat liberals over the head in the Culture Wars. And when I looked for the first occasion of its use, I found a speech from 1984 by Ronald Reagan that included the following:
Without God there is no virtue because there is no prompting of the conscience... Without God there is a coarsening of society. And without God, democracy will not and cannot long endure. If we ever forget that we're one nation under God, then we will be a nation gone under.
But I also found uses of the phrase by liberals. In an article on "Television and the Hive Mind," Mack White criticizes talk shows like Jerry Springer's and the fad for reality television, and argues that these programs
contribute to the general coarsening of society we see all around us -- the decline in manners and common human decency and the acceptance of cruelty for its own sake as a legitimate form of entertainment. Ultimately, this has the effect of debasing human beings into savages, brutes -- the better to herd them into global slavery.
Clearly the "coarsening of society" is an equal opportunity epithet. John P. Hubert, Jr., writes that the coarseness of social injustice is spreading just as fast as sexual immorality.
In the United States there is a worrisome trend underway in which the differential between the income of the lowest wage earner and the corporate CEO is beginning to approach the truly immoral and unconscionable. At present it exceeds the ratio of most industrialized nations. These unjust and immoral notions are also exported to other nations just as our pornographic content is. Combined they contribute to an overall coarsening of society in which there is less and less concern for the least among us.
So what does "the coarsening of society" really mean? Jim looks at the world through the eyes of his elderly mother and is shocked by what she sees: public profanity, clothing that leaves little to the imagination, rudeness, vulgarity, a complete absence of manners and civility. What happened to our world? It was not always like this.

"The coarsening of society" assumes a fall from grace, from an Eden of innocence when life was simpler, quieter, less complex, and people were more polite and formal. We bowed to convention, in dress and behavior. It might have been the 1920's, or perhaps the 1950's; it could have been in a small town, perhaps in the Midwest. When I was 10, I lived in a town of 7,000 in western North Carolina. Everybody knew everybody else. People were friendly, neighborly. Of course if you were colored there was a different set of rules, and that past is not so romantically remembered.

Life has changed. That's one of the benefits of being old. You remember what it used to be like. But there are others ways of looking at it rather than through the lens of a fall. What about progress? Women no longer die from illegal back street abortions. Medical technology keeps people alive longer. The accumulated knowledge of the world is available online. The world no longer takes 80 days to circumnavigate. Is your glass half full or half empty?

Recent books by Jim Wallis and Michael Lerner point out that the right has a stranglehold on issues concerning moral values. If you worry about perceived threats to the family, such as abortion on demand, gay marriage and obscenity over the airwaves and in public places, then most likely you have voted Republican. But Wallis, founder of Sojourners, said, in a recent interview posted online, that "there is a difference between the leaders and the constituency. Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson and James Dobson are genuine theocrats, and they do not want to see democracy take place. But a lot of their followers are just concerned about what they see as the coarsening of society." Wallis believes that this is
actually a genuine issue, but it shouldn’t be just a left or right issue. Being pro-family should mean you support aid for the poor, or family leave policies like they have in European countries, but when has the right ever done that?
Wallis and Lerner see a movement growing on the religious left that can reclaim the moral high ground currently dominated by the Falwells and the Robertsons. It must convince people concerned about their families that pre-emptive global war is a threat to them, chemical poisoning of the environment and global warming is a serious threat, poverty and the absence of universal health care are shameful, and the police state constructed by the Bush regime is no protection.

But what do we do about the pierced and tattooed youth with spiked and brilliantly dyed hair who swagger through our streets, blatantly exposing their midriffs and underwear?

Nothing. They may be our only salvation.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Decoding Christianity

"The Da Vinci Code" opened yesterday around the world and I joined a sold-out audience at a theater in Santa Cruz to see it. I enjoyed the book, a real page-turner, when I read it a couple of years ago, and I liked the movie. My name is Will, and I'm a card-carrying Catholic.

So what's the fuss all about? The book and now Ron Howard's film of it have both been panned by all the respectable critics. The guardians of religious orthodoxy have condemned it. It was declared "morally offensive" last week by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. And yet some 60 million copies of the book have been sold and probably that many people around the globe will watch the movie on its opening weekend. All the while, the media and Hollywood's PR machine have been relentlessly stoking the fires of controversy in search of readership and ticket sales. Is this all just a tempest in a teapot (or an espresso machine)?

I believe the book and the movie version have awakened a sleeping giant. Their wide-spread popularity and the fascinating flap over the film is a indication of deep spiritual hunger and a discontent with reigning interpretations of Christianity. People are drawn to Dan Brown's story because it portrays the humanity of Jesus and the possibility that communion with the divine might be possible in this life.

When I first read The Da Vinci Code, the novel's thesis, that Jesus fathered a child with Mary Magdalene, was familiar. It was reported as truth in Holy Bood, Holy Grail, a book published in 1982 by Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh and Henry Lincoln. And the suggestion that Jesus and Mary were lovers was portrayed in The Last Temptation of Christ, a book and subsequent film written by the Greek Marxist Nikos Kazantzakis. In his story, however, Jesus experiences the temptation of living a normal family life with Mary while on the cross but ultimately choses to die. When the film was released in 1988 there were boycotts by Christian groups and picket lines outside theaters, even in Santa Cruz. I was moved and inspired both by Kazantzakis' novel and the film which was directed by Martin Scorsese. In all of these cases I was able to find something that affirmed my faith rather than attacked it.

My Catholic Church has been identified, in the proceedings of Vatican II, with the "people of God" rather than the historical institution. Institutions, as is their nature, are threatened by attacks on their authority, and the U.S. Bishops have a website, "Jesus Decoded," that calls the book and film anti-Catholic and anti-Christian. My guide for understanding the institution has always been "The Grand Inquisitor" chapter of Fyodor Doestoevsky's magnificent novel, The Brothers Karamazov. In this tale told by the atheist Ivan to his brother Alyosha, a monk, Christ comes back to earth at the time of the Inquisition in Spain and is arrested after performing several miracles. The Grand Inquistor visits Jesus in his cell and tells him the Savior is no longer needed by the Church. Jesus brought freedom but the people cannot handle it. The Church's role, according to the Inquisitor, is to protect its followers from suffering the uncertainties of freedom to choose by surrounding them with comforting dogmas and rituals. Jesus responds to this perversion of his Gospel message by kissing the Inquisitor rather than answering him.

Most Christians are comforted by what I friend of mine once called "Dick and Jane religion." See them go to church on Sunday (perhaps only on Easter and Christmas), see them identifying
religious faith with propositional statements, see them proclaiming the literal truth of the (English) Bible, see them denouncing as heretics any religious seeker struggling with doubts and uncertainties, etc., etc., etc. It is these folk whose faith is threatened by escapist novels and Hollywood's art. They were embolded by Mel Gibson's bloody and orthodox film "The Passion of Christ" to demand that every representation of the Christian story toe the company line.

Brown's "Da Vinci Code" is a unique phenomenon because it opens up a discussion about the nature of humanity and divinity, the quest for the Holy Grail, the place of women as followers of Jesus and in the churches today, and authorities who hide the truth to save their own agendas (this goes for politicians as well as religion). For those whose minds are open, the book and film have the great potential for encouraging dialogue between believers and skeptics.

If the conversation ever happens, what we might talk about is sex. What is so threatening about the possibility that Jesus might have had sex? I fail to understand why God is said to value celibacy so much. Not only did Mary not have sex with Joseph, we are taught by the Catholic Church that Joseph gave up sex for Mary (Jesus had no brothers or sisters in our tradition). Sex has always been a problem for the Church (even before the current rash of sex abuse scandals). There are very few non-virginal saints and even the married couples canonized were reported to have given up sex. Despite much talk about the empowerment of lay people, the celibate religious life is valued more highly than married life.

Most of the criticism of "The Da Vinci Code" has been focused on errors of fact. Brown, it is said, gets his facts wrong about Constantine, the Council of Nicea in 325, the Pirory of Sion, Opus Dei, as well as Jesus and Mary Magdalene. Christians might believe Brown's false facts and stray from the faith. This assumes that religious faith is a matter of fact, like the boiling point of water or the French Revolution. But faith is a way of seeing that leads to a way of being in the world; it is not a rational conclusion about truth based on evidence. Despite claims to the contrary, Christianity is not historical. Biblical texts do not prove anything. The Gospels are a collection of poetry and allegory written by God-intoxicated scribes whose hearts were burning within them, like the followers of Jesus on the road to Emmaus. Reading the Gospel message today can awaken the spirit of God within us and lead us to the love of others, even to the point of death, that is the hallmark of the kingdom Jesus preached.

At the end of the film, Tom Hanks, playing the Harvard "symbologist," wonders about the nature of Jesus, and asks: "Why does it have to be human or divine?" And his answer is that "maybe human is divine." Saint Athanasius of Alexander declared that "God became human that we might become God." Doctors of the Church and mystics have taught that divination is our birthright. Rather than see a rigid separation between the human and the divine, as the early Gnostics did, contemporary literary and cinematic explorations into the human and the divine have emphasized the human possibilities, and what a divinized human nature might look like. We should not feel threatened by any genuine attempts to see the divine in the human, or the human aspects of the divine.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Mom, This is For You

My mother died three years ago. For her 90th birthday, I flew to Florida to celebrate with her. We had lunch at the seafood restaurant she liked near her home in Bayonet Point north of
St. Petersburg where she had survived my father's death by ten years. We both had the shrimp.

Less than a month later she fell and broke her hip. While she was recovering after an operation to give her a new hip, one of her doctors noticed an irregular heart beat and suggested a pace maker. "But my heart has always been like that, dear," she told me on the phone. My brother was convinced by the physician, and gave his permission. She never recovered from the second operation, and after she was moved to a hospice, a nurse told me that her heart continued to beat irregularly. Until it stopped.

I don't know much about mothers, having had only one. She was named Alyce Anita by her parents but changed it to Peggy because she liked it better. And she thought it suited her red hair, which in later years she assiduously dyed. For most of my life, we were not close, either emotionally or geographically. She loved to gossip, read only Readers Digest condensed books, and knew nothing of music, art or literature. She was born in Winnipeg, Canada, but had absorbed all the prejudices of the South from six years of living in North Carolina and Georgia.

I went to high school in California, and we lived in a lily white suburb of Los Angeles. One day a friend I'd met in the high school band came to my house to visit. He was black. My mother, after slamming in the door in his face, went into the bedroom, shut the door loudly, and shouted: "I'm not leaving until he goes away." I was mortified.

My father was tall and silent, my mother was short and fussy. They hardly ever argued, but when they did it was usually my mother who would scream hysterical accusations at my father from the sanctuary of her bedroom.

When I brought my first wife home to meet her, my mother stood outside the guest bedroom at 6 in the morning and loudly complained about the sin of oversleeping. She herself would rise at dawn and scrub the kitchen floor.

After we settled on separate coasts, I would call my parents regularly and dutifully. They, on the other hand, rarely called me. I excused this, thinking it was from a concern not to meddle in our affairs. But my mother was an experienced and accomplished meddler, so it must have been my father's calming influence.

My father died slowly, of emphysema and congestive heart failure, and she was a loving and devoted nurse. After he was gone, she seemed to flourish in her new-found singularity. She took more of an interest in my families and pride in my accomplishments. After my second marriage ended, I began visiting her more often. We enjoyed shopping together, reading the National Inquirer and laughing at the stories, and we watched her favorite TV shows. She had an impressive grasp of the lives of celebrities.

As her body aged and shrunk, I noticed the courage with which she approached every new challenge. Giving up her driver's license after an accident that was her fault, she talked about the wonderful door-to-door bus service for seniors in her town. She was always cheerful, even while sending me to the store on an emergency errand to buy adult diapers. Optimism for Mom was a way of life and I came to respect the person she had become.

"My mother didn't know how to be a mother," she once confessed to me. Her mother had been cold and distant, and she was sent to a convent boarding school in Toronto at an early age. Hearing this, I began to see why my mother seemed flighty and superficial rather than warmly affectionate and loving. She had never learned how. And I, too, have struggled with being real, honest and loving.

Wherever we lived while I was growing up, she would attend the most socially acceptable Protestant church, accompanied by me and my brother. My father claimed to worship God on the golf course. After his death, I bought her a rosary and on my visits to Florida we would go to mass at the nearby Catholic church. She took great pleasure in receiving the Eucharist. I give her credit now for starting me on the spiritual path.

Slowly I let go of my judgements about her. I remembered how she had cared for me when I developed asthma at the age of six. She was there, patting my back, when I stood bent over, struggling for each breath. And when I broke my femur in a car accident after high school graduation and was forced to lie in bed for two months in a body cast, she changed my bed pan. After my second divorce, she defended me so vehemently against the woman who had rejected me that I had to take my ex-wife's side and urge a little compassion.

I am glad that I got to know you, Mom, before you died. And on this Mother's Day, I remember you with all the warmth, love and affection that you deserve.

Saturday, May 13, 2006

I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together

Feast Day of Our Lady of Fatima

Communion Reflection on John 14:7-14

I can identify with Philip in this reading. “Master, show us the Father.” Just let us see God, and that will be enough. For years that has been my secret prayer. If I could only see God then this troublesome uncertainty would go away. I would know God and that would set me free.

It’s my secret prayer because we’re not supposed to see God. Moses heard the voice of God coming from the burning bush, but he did not see him. “My face you cannot see, for no man sees me and still lives,” he was told. In First Timothy we read that “no human being has ever seen or can see” God.

But that doesn’t stop me. I still want to see God. Mystics in the past have reported encounters with God. Even poor Job got to behold His majesty. I’d settle for a pillar of fire, a burning bush, even a still small voice.

Philip, like the stubborn Peter who gets it wrong so many times, does not hear Jesus. The disciples are gathered around their teacher for the Passover meal. In John’s Gospel they wash each other’s feet. Although they do not know it yet, this is the last time they will be with Jesus and he has some important things to tell them.

One of them is: if you want to see God, look at me.

The Evangelist did not record Philip’s reply. The disciples must have been puzzled. How could a man be God? Perhaps they had forgotten that he earlier said: “The Father and I are one.”

It’s two thousand years later and now we think we know, unlike the poor disciples, what Jesus meant by these words. Theologians have explained to us the mystery of the Trinity, which is hinted at in the Gospel of John, and many of us believe, with little doubt, that Jesus is God. They are one and the same.

But rather than bringing God closer to me, the idea that Jesus IS God takes Him father away. I am still left with the absence of God and my secret prayer to see him face to face.

I think if we read the passage from John over carefully we will see that Jesus does NOT say he is God, but rather “I am in the Father and the Father is in me.” He says it twice for emphasis. What does this mean? It signifies a very close intimacy, but not identity. This intimacy will expand with the coming of the Holy Spirit, the Paraclete. And – what is most amazing – this intimacy that we call the Trinity will include us.

At the close of his last discourse, Jesus prays “that all may be one as you, Father, are in me, and I in you…that they may be one in us.” In this cosmic communitarian view, we are all one in one another, in Jesus and in God.

Because we are all one, mutually indwelling, the entire universe is connected with a thread of the divine. The late great preacher Martin Luther King wrote that: “We are all caught up in an inescapable network of mutuality.” This is not unlike the ecological insight that everything in nature is interdependent and interrelated. For John Muir, the prophet of ecology: “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe. “The Vietnamese Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh, said that “through mindfulness (or meditation) we experience interbeing, which means everything is in everything else.” And finally, the Beatles sang: “I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together.”

The risen Christ has made it possible for us to see God everywhere.

One day in 1958, Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk, was standing on a crowded street corner in downtown Louisville, Kentucky, when, he writes, he “was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all these people, that they were mine and I was theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. “ He continues: “I have the immense joy of being human, a member of the race in which God himself became incarnate. The sorrows and stupidities of the human condition can no longer overwhelm me, now that I realize what we all are. If only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.”

I’ve spent some time in Asia, and there – in Buddhist and Hindu countries alike – people greet each other with the palms touching in front of the heart. “Namaste,” they say in India, and I’ve been told that it means “the divine in me acknowledges the divine in you.” It’s a good gesture, and I suggest we do that with each other: “The Trinitarian God in me acknowledges the Trinitarian God in you. May we be all one in one another, in Jesus and in God.

We Are What We Eat (and how)

I've never cared much for food. Eating has always seemed to me to be a necessary evil. That might have something to do with the way I was raised. My mother protected her domain -- the kitchen -- like a mother hen and forbid entrance to the men in the house. So I never learned to cook. And the deciding moment for her in the 1950s was the introduction of TV dinners. Consequently, we rarely ate together at the dining room table, unless it was a holiday or there were guests, and my culinary memories are of eating tasteless food on TV trays in front of the small black-and-white screen, watching Ed Sullivan. Now, my gourmet experiences involve heating frozen packages from Trader Joes in the microwave.

These thoughts about food and eating practices were prompted by a wonderful interview with Michael Pollan in The Sun this month, "Lost in the Supermarket," which you can read here. Pollan is the author of The Omnivore's Dilemma, which, he explains, is "the existential predicament we're in regarding food...deciding what to eat out of all the potential foods available is a complicated process." Pollan says that how we answer the question of what we eat defines our relationship with the natural world.

While I resent taking time to think about what I should eat, I am concerned about the natural world, the politics of industrial agriculture (California's dubious claim to fame) and the relationship of oil to cheap, globalized food. Pollan shows how all these factors are connected, and the resulting picture is not pretty

In "The Communist Manifesto," Karl Marx wrote that capitalism was distinguished by "constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation." The result was an overturning of all that had been sacred in previous ages. "All fixed, fast frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned." Michael Pollan argues that this capitalist revolution includes the destruction of ancient cultural practices of eating which helped us choose between healthy food and poison, a knowledge obtained through long trial and error.

"The family dinner, and more generally a cultural consensus on the subject of eating, appears to be the latest such casualty of capitalism. These rules and rituals stood in the way of the food industry's need to sell a well-fed population more food, through ingenious new ways of processing, packaging, and marketing it...So we find ourselves as a species almost back where we started: anxious omnivores struggling once again to figure out what it's wise to eat. Instead of relying on the accumulated wisdom of a cuisine, or even on the wisdom of our senses, we rely on expert opinion, advertising, government food pyramids, and diet books, and we place our faith in science to sort out for us what culture once did with rather more success."

But this means that we are relying on corporations and institutions who are intent more on extracting a profit from us eaters and feeders rather than nourishing our health. "McDonald's pushes our evolutionary buttons," Pollan says, "by making things very sweet, salty, and fatty." In his book he follows the food chain of a bushel of corn, 56 pounds of kernels which sell for $1.50. "The challenge is to turn that cheap corn into something expensive," he writes, and he discovered that at McDonalds 15 percent of the bun comes from corn and 100 percent of the soda. Corn can be made into sweeteners, gasoline (ethanol) and feed for animals. In addition, you need vast quantities of fossil fuel (the food industry uses 20 percent of imported oil). That bushel of corn, or a half-pound of beef, each requires a half gallon of oil to grow, and more to transport them to market. "So to eat that McDonald's meal," Pollan says, "we need to keep the oil flowing. that's one reason we're in Iraq."

The industrialized, processed food that we eat is bad and it's cheap. Americans spend less of their income on food -- around 11 or 12 percent -- than any other people in history, according to Pollan. Europeans spend 20 percent, and for most of history people spent 50 percent of their income on feeding themselves. And one consequence of cheap, nutritionally empty food is the current obesity epidemic in America.

Eating, then, is a political act. My dilemma is that I never developed the skills to feed myself easily, and food in general (as opposed to celebratory meals with friends) is about as interesting to me as stamp collecting. I love the smells and colors of the weekly Farmer's Market but often feel like an alien among the roots and berries. Pollan's survey and analysis of the changing ways we eat, however, is a healthy kick in the ass. Buy organic. Buy local.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Letter from Iran

The Western press, in lock-step with Condi Rice, has already dismissed it as irrelevant and insubstantial, but I found the letter from the president of Iran to President Bush fascinating.

You can read it in full here.

Addressing Bush as "a follower of Jesus Christ (PBUH), the great Messenger of God," Mahmoud Ahmadinejad asks him "how one can justify the undeniable contradictions that exist" between the values one professes and the deeds one does. In a polite and somewhat abstract way, Ahmadinejad is asking the American president to explain his apparent hypocrisy. How is it possible that a Christian (and there is much about Jesus the prophet in the Qur'an) can wage preventative war under false pretenses? How can a Christian trample human rights in Guantanamao Bay and in the secret prisons of Europe? How can a Christian support the oppression of Palestinians by Israel?

"If prophet Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Ishmael, Joseph or Jesus Christ (PBUH) were with us today," the Iranian leader asks, "how would they have judged such behavior?"

History will judge us, he tells Bush. "Did we manage to bring peace, security and prosperity for the people or insecurity and unemployment?" He notes that in the U.S. many people are living in poverty, thousands are homeless and unemployment is a "huge problem." The enormous cost of the Iraq misadventure is singled out: "What has the hundreds of billions of dollars, spent every year to pay for the Iraqi campaign, produced for the citizens." And Ahmadinejad notes that Saddam, "a murderous dictator," had long been supported by the West.

As for the current campaign to deny Iran the use of nuclear energy, Ahmadinejad askes why it is "that any technological and scientific achievement reached in the Middle East regions is translated into and portrayed as a threat to the Zionist regime?" America's obsequiousness to the pro-Israel lobby is the blind spot that prevents any solution to the Middle East quagmire. The Iranian argues that "scientific R&D is one of the basic rights of nations." The fact that Israel has long had nuclear weapons pointed at Iran is not mentioned.

Ahmadinejad calls 9/11 "a horrendous incident," and says the "killing of innocents is deplorable and appalling in any part of the world." But he hints at a possible conspiracy on the part of intelligence and security services and wonders why no one has been arrested, tried and convicted for failing to protect the United States from terrorists.

"Are you pleased with the current condition of the world?" he taunts Bush. "Do you think present policies can continue?" The situation has resulted in "an ever increasing global hatred of the American government?"

At the end of the letter, Ahmadinejad asks Bush, as a fellow believer in God, to join him in overcoming the present problems of the world "that are the result of disobedience to the Almighty and the teachings of the prophets...Will you not accept this invitation?"

I find this letter eminently sensible. But I also thought that Osama Bin Laden made some excellent points in his recent message to the world. When will we learn to listen to our opponents, our foes, our enemies? Jon Stewart had it right when he asked immediately after 9/11: "Why do they hate us so much?" There are reasons, and they have a long history. But in a black-and-white world where we demonize those who think differently, this history is not heard.

Monday, May 08, 2006

In Praise of Hairy Palms

Walking down Pacific Avenue yesterday, I did a double take in front of Camouflage, the lingerie (and more!) store. A sign in the window read: “May is Masturbation Month. Are you doing your part?” A little research on Google uncovered the facts. Early in 1995, Surgeon General Jocelyn Elders was fired by President Bill Clinton after suggesting that masturbation was a natural part of human sexuality and should be discussed in a comprehensive sexual health curriculum. In response to the firing, Good Vibrations, a supermarket for sex toys and books in San Francisco, declared May to be National Masturbation Month, and the unofficial holiday has been celebrated for over a decade. You can read all about it here.

I still vividly recall my embarrassment when an 8th grade science teacher solemnly told his class that “excessive masturbation makes hair grow on your palms” – and I looked. Has anyone managed to avoid this rite of passage? According to wisdom of Lily Tomlin: “We have reason to believe that man first walked upright to free his hands for masturbation.” And another wit has argued: “if God didn’t want us to masturbate, He would have given us shorter arms.” Certainly in the catalogue of human sexuality, masturbation is something to be laughed at, and enjoyed, rather than to be feared.

But my Catholic Church does indeed continue to believe that masturbation is a sin. According to the official catechism, masturbation is an offense against chastity because it is “an intrinsically and gravely disordered action.” Pope Paul VI, in “Persona Humana,” declared that the main reason for this condemnation is because “whatever the motive for acting this way, the deliberate use of the sexual faculty outside normal conjugal relations essentially contradicts the finality of the faculty.” In other words, the “faculty” was created by God solely for the purpose of procreation within (heterosexual) marriage, and not for pleasure, with someone else or alone.

Is masturbation a trivial sin, something to be eventually overturned, like eating fish on Fridays or the necessity for women to cover their heads in church, or is it rather symptomatic of all that the Church has gotten wrong about human sexuality? While the Magisterium in Rome claims that tradition is one of the pillars of the Church, it has been clear to scholars for years that culture and politics play important roles in shaping that tradition. While not willing to rehash history now, let me argue here that the Church’s attitude toward sex and the body is a holdover from Gnosticism which saw the universe in black and white terms (not unlike the Manicheanism that St. Augustine believed but later rejected). In this tradition, the body is either evil or an illusion, or both, and something to be transcended rather than enjoyed. This tradition contradicts another which takes the creation story in Genesis for its source. God declared that what he had created was “good,” all of it, and this includes bodies. Matthew Fox took this idea as the beginning for his theology of creation spirituality.

Jesus did not discuss sexuality in the Gospels. And although there is an otherworldly character to many of his reported sayings (particularly in John which shows Gnostic influences), the message to any sincere reader today is decidedly thisworldly. The way to the Kingdom (now, in this lifetime) is by loving God and neighbor, and we do that by taking care of others, feeding the hungry, healing the sick, sheltering the homeless (Matthew, chapter 25).

The sexual abuse scandal has knocked the Church to its knees, but without the kind of repentance that would indicate a change of heart. It continues to maintain misguided and downright wrong ideas about sexuality. Because sex outside procreation is sinful, it must be repressed. And any first-year student of Freud knows that the repressed always returns with a vengeance. For generations, young candidates for the religious life have embarked on a life of celibacy with few tools other than repression. And we see the results today in countless stories of sexual aberrations by priests and nuns. Homosexuals and lesbians, drawn to a life of service to God and neighbor, are doubly condemned. Parents and sexually active young people, faced with unwanted pregnancies, have ignored the “pro life” teachings of the Church in numbers comparable to the un-churched. Once the respect for Church tradition has been compromised, can the edifice survive?

And finally, the Church’s historic misunderstanding of sexuality has led it into comparable problems involving gender. It should be obvious today that to conceive of God as father is culturally and linguistically based. Likewise, Jesus set no rules in the Gospels for which gender might perform the role of priests in the Church (which he did not clearly originate). Despite the customs of the time, women were involved at all levels of the early Church, and Mary Magdalene can be reasonably called the first apostle because of her presence at the empty tomb. Only many years later did men take control of the Church. Continuing attempts to justify an all-male priesthood are embarrassing, to say the least.

Why stay in such a fallible Church? Because I enjoy the companionship of good people who are seeking the mystery of God, and because the liturgy and the sacraments feed me on my journey. This morning as the congregation held hands and prayed the Our Father, I laughed to myself and imagined us as the community of the hairy palms, all of us struggling to live full-bodied lives, illuminated by the light of the Holy Spirit.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Body Image

No, I am not this Bill Yaryan. I know he has my name, and I'm aware that this picture of him, with that award-winning prodigious protuberance, is all over the web. But it's not me.

I suppose I shouldn't care. What if I were named John Smith and the world were full of other John Smiths? Or I could be named Jose Gonzalez, or even Mohammed, with all the name confusion and competition THAT would involve.

Let me be honest. The fact that he is named Bill Yaryan does not bother me so much as that he's large, excessively large. And seemingly proud of it. In days long gone by, when I was string-bean thin, I would have laughed at the difference. I'm obviously not him! (pointing to my wimpy stomach). But those days have passed, and as I move through my seventh decade on this planet, my stomach has grown accordingly. I, too, have a protuberance, though not (yet) an award-winning one. I gaze at my rotund reflection in store windows as I stroll the street, and I mourn my transformation from a boney, gawkey kid into this amply-endowed elderly gentleman.

I am troubled by my body image, by the self conveyed through appearance, and I share this malaise with countless people on the planet, particularly those in First World, enlightened countries where youth and health are emblems of worship. I can identify especially with women who are forced into the false facades of fashion, spread by seductive advertising and the media's focus on celebrity. The cosmetics industry would collapse if women would only recognize that true beauty and worth come from within, not from a bottle or tube or lipsuction. But we don't teach that in schools. And even men are getting facelifts.

I am also troubled by the widespread idea that our bodies are infinitely malleable, and that we can sculpt them as we please, with enough effort and the correct diet or supplements. The gyms, pools and bike paths and full of part-time athletes anxious to win the gold, or at least live forever. There is nothing wrong with seeking and staying healthy, but I detect in many of my friends a compulsiveness to fend off wrinkles and double chins, a desire to recapture the vigor and sheen of their youth.

Most people are satisfied to tell others that they've been "working out" alot. Twenty some years ago I participated in the fad for running and I reveled in the thought that I was an athlete, at least temporarily. There is no question that I felt good, in body and mind, from the exercise. But I don't run any more, and I am aware of the others around me who have failed to get in shape, their bodies capitulating to gravity and cellulite. If you're wealthy, though, like my 63-year-old friend in Spain, you can defy fate by getting a face lift and a boob job.

What I resent (and here comes the rant) in all this obsession with the body is that it turns the victims of genetics and the choosers of alternative priorities into failures. We pity the mishapen and the prematurely aged. If only they'd exercised more and kept in shape! It's not unlike blaming the cancer victim for causing their condition by not eating the right foods, exercising, etc. Yes, there is an obesity epidemic in the modern west, but it's the fault of a greedy (i.e. capitalist) food industry eager to profit from the poor, and NOT the fault of the eaters. Yes, exercise is good for you, but why is cheaply produced corn syrup in pratically everything we buy?

There is so much more to worry about and work on in this world that is more important than our body image. And even if I might be happier looking like Tom Cruise (or, for me, Sean Connery), I'm too busy campaigning for world peace and an end to hunger than to pump iron and huff and puff on a tredmill.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Dying a Good Death

Gail Karen died peacefully last Sunday, surrounded in her home by family, friends, and members of the Everyday Dharma Buddhist sangha. The following evening the community gathered at the zendo, nestled among Victorian houses and cottages in downtown Santa Cruz, to chant the Heart Sutra.

"Form does not differ from emptiness; emptiness does not differ from form. That which is form is emptiness; that which is emptiness form. The same is true of feelings, perceptions, formations, consciousness."

"In emptiness (there is) suffering, no origination, no stopping, no path, no cognition, also no attainment with nothing to attain."

"For those of us left behind," announced the sangha's teacher Carolyn Atkinson, "we begin a period of holding her close in our hearts, of recognition, of mourning and of celebration." Each evening for a week, the sangha will sit in meditation to honor Gail. Next Monday the Heart Sutra will be chanted again, and then also each Wednesday evenings for seven weeks to complete the traditional Buddhist 49 days of mourning. "Gail reminds us again," said Carolyn, "how very precious this being alive is, and how important our practice can be."

I first met Gail five years ago when I began sitting with Everyday Dharma at the Santa Cruz Zen Center on School Street. My marriage had broken up and I was looking for a community of seekers who were trying to make sense out of this precious and crazy life. Carolyn had been trained in both Zen and Vipassana forms of Buddhism, and was a founder of the original Zen Center in the 1970s, and Everyday Dharma seemed to offer Buddhist teaching without the trappings of Asian language and culture. There was a minimum of ritual and the talks and lively conversation following meditation were about everyday life and how mindfulness might reduce suffering. We sat on our cushions and shared the messy stuff of our lives. We learned that we were not our minds and that we could distance ourselves from the restless chatter of thought.

Gail was attractive. She was a petite and vibrant blonde with a full resonant voice and a charming accent that I couldn't immediately place. But I soon learned that she came attached with a husband, a tall, handsome cinemaphotographer named Fred who always provided a humorous perspective on weighty matters. I also learned that her original language was Spanish and that she was born and grew up in Santiago, Chile. Gail's comments and questions in the discussions were always close to the bone. But she also had an infectuous smile and a deep-throated and full-bodied laugh. Best of all were her hugs. Gail really knew how to hug.

One of Carolyn's favorite quotes that she often cites in her talks is: "It may be not what I wanted, but it's what I got." This affirmation served her well through several operations for breast cancer. I found it helpful in dealing with my prostate cancer. And when Gail was diagnosed with colon cancer over two years ago, it became even more central, for Gail and for the community. Gail shared with the sangha the entire process of her illness and approaching death. She talked openly about her fears and hopes, about the operations she endured, and about the news several months ago that the cancer had spread to her liver. Three weeks ago we met after meditation and she gave me one of her earth-shaking hugs. This time I knew it was to say goodbye.

Gail's was a good death. Her's was not a struggle or a battle with the cancer that killed her but a coming to terms with it. She did not "rage against the dying of the light," but somehow submitted to the fires of necessity, so that at the end she was pure compassion, the ego all burnt away. Gail's dying taught us how to live, how to enjoy the precious present moment. And her dying also taught us how to die, for this is the gate we must all pass through.

How different the Buddhist teaching about death seems from the Christian story! The Resurrection means for me that "death shall have no dominion"; that death is not the final answer. We are not random atoms in a meaningless universe. But the Buddhist "emptiness" is not nihilism, or the absence of spiritual fullness. In the Gospel of John, Jesus says "I came that they might have life and have it to the full." How one might attain fullness of life -- paradoxically, by dying for the other -- is contained in the teaching of the Good News (a teaching I'm afraid only a few can hear and follow). It is not that dissimilar from Buddhist teaching that "emptiness" results from giving up ego attachments, from the forms in which we cage reality. For both Christians and Buddhists death is a mystery that we cloak with stories. In the presence of a good death, like Gail's, we are all comforted and strengthened.

Gate, gate, paragate, parasamgate, bodhi svaha
, ends the Heart Sutra, traditionally chanted in the original Pali language rather than in translation. It means: "Gone, gone, gone beyond, gone all together beyond, awaken, all hail."

Goodbye, Gail, and all hail to you.

You can read about Gail's life here.

A Memorial service will be held this evening.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

"We Are All Immigrants"

What a glorious day! Thousands of people (who would try to estimate?) filled the streets of Santa Cruz yesterday with chants of "Si Se Puede!" ("Yes we can!") and "El pueblo unido jamas sera vencido" ("The people united will never be defeated"), waving American flags, and carrying signs in English and Spanish -- "Nosotros Somos Immigrantes" ... "We Are All Immigrants" -- to voice their joyful hope that a new day is dawning for human rights in this country. Oh, that Martin Luther King were alive to see it!

You can read the story about the march and rally in the local Sentinel here.

Even the weather shared our optimism. People were even passing around tubes of sun screen. I was particularly struck by the numbers of children. Babes in arms, on shoulders, tots in strollers, young kids walking proudly with their parents. This wonderful feeling of solidarity will mark them forever. This coming generation will will surely not permit the oppression and cruelties we have wrought on the unfortunate earth. And marches like this were taking place all over the United States, with millions gathering in New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles. Closer to home, Watsonville, Salinas and Seaside all had huge marches and rallies to mark "Un Dia Sin Immigrantes." If these folks would join the antiwar movement, we would be invinceable!

Santa Cruz was curiously quiet yesterday morning. Planet Fresh was closed, and even Chocolat, the cafe where Molly works, in front of the Bookshop Santa Cruz, was shut. The boycott was working. Business could not be conducted as usual while the human rights of immigrants (of anyone!) are threatened. One "reform" bill before Congress would criminalize charity to
those without the proper papers. I saw several signs on the march that read: "I am Not a Criminal!" At noon people began to gather at the Town Clock. Someone beat out a drum beat, others began to chant. Two boys on the shoulders of their fathers waved a Brazilian flag (immigrants know no borders). Anticipation built to a crescendo. The police blocked off streets. And up Pacific Avenue came a huge tide of people, the entire population, no doubt, of the Beach Flats. And down Mission, led by a flotilla of bikers, came another huge crowd, students from the University. We all met in the intersection, a happy, screaming mass of human beings who knew their time had come. I couldn't stop crying to take a photograph.

I arrived early and noticed a man standing on the corner by the Post Office with a large sign that read: "Redwoods (in red) or Open Borders? (in black)" As a fan of the redwoods, who has written a history of the movement to save them in Big Basin State Park, I was curious. But I couldn't make sense of his sign. So I went over and asked him what it meant. He was in his 50's and wore a Big Basin tee shirt, and he was clearly agitated. "Those people" -- he pointed across the street at the crowd gathering by the Town Clock -- "want to open our borders and let billions of people in. I've spent my life trying to save the redwoods and overpopulation will make that impossible." So it's a choice, I asked, the redwoods or open the borders to anyone that wants to come in? He nodded yes, as if I was an idiot to not understand his point. "First," I argued, "I don't know anyone here who's advocating open borders. And second, many of us are environmentalists and agree that the trees are valuable." At that moment an older woman with an "We Are All Immigrants" sign came up and supported me, saying that she has 30 acres of redwoods she's trying to save. But he didn't want to hear any qualifications to his claim. To him it boiled down to the Deep Ecology argument that sometimes nature is more important than people. He is also probably in favor of Draconian limits on the birth rate, such as in China. I felt some sympathy for him, but he seemed to have a death wish, carrying a sign like that among people he obviously considered the enemy. But later it occured to me that probably many of the marchers couldn't read it, and others, like me, didn't understand what it meant.

The marchers, most of whom wore white and waved small American flags, spread across all lanes on Water Street and slowly surged across the bridge over the San Lorenzo River before turning down into the park. I saw one man holding up a picture of the Virgin of Guadalupe and recalled that she adorned a banner in the Mexican Revolution. I also saw her image on the back of several shirts. She was an appropriate icon for the day when immigrants, legal and undocumented, flexed their muscles and declared both their love for this adopted country and their desire to be treated as human beings. "This is the new civil rights movement," shouted one speaker over the bullhorn. The mostly inaudible speeches at the rally were an anti-climax to an event which will be long remembered in Santa Cruz.

Monday, May 01, 2006

Welcoming the Stranger

Today is "Un Dia Sin Inmigrantes — A Day Without Immigrants." It is still early in California where I write, and there is no news yet about the national boycott on behalf of immigrant rights. Hundreds of thousands of immigrants and their supporters are expected to participate. Here in Santa Cruz, there will be two marches, one from Beach Flats near the Boardwalk where many immigrants live, and another down from the UC Santa Cruz campus. Both marches will meet at the Town Clock at noon and then will continue to San Lorenzo Park for a rally. I will be there.

"Welcoming the Stranger: United in Diversity" is the title of a pastoral letter issued by the U.S. Catholic Bishop in the fall of 2000. For me, that is the heart of the matter. The stranger, whomever he or she might be, deserves to be welcomed, not deported. The Catholic Church always has been at the front of the march for immigrant rights. They have a web site, "Justice for Immigrants: A Journey of Hope," devoted to it.

When I traveled to Mexico in 1962, I recall seeing from my bus window a huge field with thousands and thousands of men sitting around camp fires in the early morning. I was told they were braceros, waiting to enter the United States to work in our agricultural fields. California's fields have always needed help from immigrants. Before the bracero program, which lasted from 1942 to 1964, farm owners lured workers from China, Japan, the Philippines and elsewhere to tend their fields and pick their crops. The white Okies, memorialized by John Steinbeck and Woody Guthrie, were just a blip on the field worker screen. Foreign strangers have always done the dirty work in the United States (to call this country "America" is to ignore the huddled masses north and south of us, all of them Americans).

There have always been immigrants, unending flows of migrant people from continent to continent in search of a better life. I first learned about this from reading Eric Wolf's classic study, "Europe and the People Without History." In pre-modern times, populations were necessarily multicultural. The old and the new residents got along. If you look at the earth from outer space, there are no borders. What changed for the immigrants was the rise of the nation state in the 19th century. It legitimized the differences between Us and Them.

Welcoming the stranger is a prime value to ancient and indigenous people, a value we've lost. The Patriarch Abraham was a "wandering Aramean," leaving his home in Haram to travel where he would become the founder of the Jewish people. The Semitic people considered hospitality to strangers a sacred duty. In Genesis 18, the story is told of Abrham's encounter with God in the form of three strangers (Christians see this as a foreshadowing of the Trinity). He invites them in to his tent, washes their feet and feeds them, as was the custom. Later in the Bible, God say to Moses: "You shall treat the alien who resides with you no differently than the natives born among you; have the same love for him as for yourself; for you too were once aliens in the land of Egypt." (Leviticus 19:34)

Jesus taught that that we love God by loving our neighbor. The Good Samaritan is the story of helping the stranger when all around you treat them as undesireable. In the Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 25, Jesus says to those at the Last Judgement, "Come, you who are blessed by my Father. Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was...a stranger and you welcomed me." Hospitality to the stranger, the alien, the immigrant, is the key to the Kingdom of God.

Even this country once recognized that welcoming the stranger was important. "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearing to breath free..." is enscribed on the Statue of Liberty which stands in the harbor of New York to greet and welcoming incoming immigrants. But as soon as the first immigrants settled here they began constructing fences to keep other immigrants out. Xenophobia, the fear of strangers, became the rule of the land.

In California where the native population had been displaced, first by Spaniards and later by Mexicans, the new flow of immigrants came not only from the United States to the east but also from every country in the world; the 49'ers saw in the gold fields the chance for fortune and a new life. But the new arrivals soon asserted their primacy and xenophobia took over. All previous classes of immigrants were persecuted by the latecomers. It's not a pretty picture.

Today, ironically, vigilant Minutemen patrol the southern border of California to ferret out illegal Mexicans (you can read a local story about them here) and a nativist wing of the Sierra Club tried unsuccessfully to persuade the environmental organization to blame immigrants for the destruction of nature epitomized by hydraulic mining. If there were any justice in international politics, Mexico would take back California.

Today I expect that the dozens of dark-skinned men who stand around outside the San Lorenzo Lumber Company on River Street every day looking for day work will be gone. And the men I see everyday on bicycles, because our governor wants to prevent them from driving, will have joined the others on the march from Beach Flats to San Lorenzo Park. I will rejoice in their solidarity and wish them well. In the not too distance future, they and their kinspeople will be in the majority in this state and I will hope that they will welcome me, the stranger at their door.