Leader’s Message – “June Is Torture Awareness Month” – June 2018

May 12, 2018

When you read this, Gina Haspel may be leading the Central Intelligence Agency. I hope not, but the political odds were in her favor. As Acting CIA Director, with over thirty years’ experience, Trump’s nominee was eminently qualified, but her claim, during her Senate Intelligence Committee hearing in May to have a “strong moral compass” was in serious doubt when she refused to answer whether or not she thought the CIA’s torture program developed under President George W. Bush after 9/11 was immoral.

 

“After 9/11, I didn’t look to go sit on the Swiss desk — I stepped up,” Haspel said. “I was not on the sidelines. I was on the front lines in the Cold War, and I was on the front lines in the fight against Al Qaeda.”

 

That fight employed brutal torture techniques, including waterboarding detainees, dousing them with ice water, forcing them to stay awake for as long as a week, and subjecting some to medically unnecessary rectal feeding. The program was ended in 2007 and its techniques prohibited by President Barack Obama in 2009. A report issued in 2014 by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence analyzing internal CIA documents related to the torture of terrorism suspects concluded that “the CIA’s use of its enhanced interrogation techniques was not an effective means of acquiring intelligence or gaining cooperation from detainees” and that “multiple CIA detainees fabricated information, resulting in faulty intelligence.”

 

“Having served in that tumultuous time,” Haspel said, “I can offer you my personal commitment, clearly and without reservation, that under my leadership, C.I.A. will not restart such a detention and interrogation program.”

 

When asked if she would stand up to Trump, who apparently believes that torture works, should he order her to resume that program, she replied, “I do not believe the president would ask me to do that,” adding, “I would not restart under any circumstances an interrogation program at C.I.A.” We can only hope that this is true; the evidence isn’t convincing.

 

June was declared Torture Awareness Month by human rights and faith organizations because on June 26, 1987, the nations of the world took a major step against the immoral practice of torture by establishing the Convention Against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT). The United Nations later declared June 26th the International Day in Support of Victims of Torture.

 

Why, one wonders, in spite of overwhelming evidence that torture is ineffective in eliciting reliably truthful information, does it persist? In February 2016, forty-two retired generals and admirals wrote in a letter to presidential candidates, “Torture violates our core values as a nation. Our greatest strength is our commitment to the rule of law and to the principles embedded in our Constitution. Our servicemen and women need to know that our leaders do not condone torture of any kind.”

 

Former prisoner of the Vietnam War and the chair of the Armed Services Committee John McCain was brutally tortured for more than five years but refused early release unless other captives were also freed. In a statement he made last month, he said that Haspel’s “refusal to acknowledge torture’s immorality is disqualifying,” urging his colleagues to vote against her. “As I have argued many times, the methods we employ to keep our nation safe must be as right and just as the values we aspire to live up to and promote in the world.”

 

In response, White House aide Kelly Sadler joked, “It doesn’t matter. He’s dying anyway.” Tragically, this is the kind of callous remark we have come to expect from an administration whose chief once said, in declaring that McCain was not a war hero, that he preferred “people who weren’t captured,”

 

The 2014 statement on National Security, Intelligence, and Interrogation Professionals defined torture as “a manifestation of atavistic impulses to denigrate, subjugate, and dehumanize individuals perceived to pose a threat to indivuals’ or society’s safety. It is primitive, unreasoned, and an affirmation of anger.” There is no place for such immorality in our world.

 

To learn more about Torture Awareness Month and to join the effort to end the torture of solitary confinement in U.S. prisons, visit the National Religious Campaign Against Torture at http://www.nrcat.org/.

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Leader’s Message – “Mother By Choice Day” – May 2018

April 18, 2018

Leader’s Message – May 2018
Mother by Choice Day

In 1914, President Woodrow Wilson officially proclaimed the second Sunday of May “a public expression of our love and reverence for all mothers.” After seven years of campaigning for Mother’s Day, Anna Jarvis of Philadelphia, beloved daughter of Ann Reeves Jarvis, had finally succeeded. Tragically, rapid commercialization despoiled what she had hoped would be an intimate holiday “to celebrate the best mother you’ve ever known – your mother – as a son or a daughter.” Jarvis dedicated the rest of her life and her considerable inheritance to organizing boycotts, threatening lawsuits, and even attacking First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt for using Mother’s Day to raise funds for charities. She died penniless in 1948 at the age of 84 in Philadelphia’s Marshall Square Sanitarium. Jarvis, who never bore children herself, took great pains to acquire and defend her role as “Mother of Mother’s Day.”

Last year, according to the National Retail Federation’s annual Mother’s Day spending survey, Americans spent over $23 billion paying attention to their mothers. Seventy-seven percent of them sent a greeting card, making Mother’s Day the third most popular card-sending holiday after Christmas and Valentine’s Day. About 69% gave their mothers flowers, and 36% jewelry. The National Restaurant Association reports that Mother’s Day is the most popular holiday of the entire year to dine out, with nearly half of all Americans dining out. Does this mean that commercialization has won out over intimacy?

In recent years, Americans have also recognized the origin of Mother’s Day as International Peace Day. That history began in the 1850s when Jarvis’s mother, West Virginia women’s organizer Ann Reeves Jarvis, convened Mother’s Day work clubs to improve sanitary conditions and lower infant mortality. These clubs also tended wounded soldiers from both sides of the Civil War. In the postwar years, to unite former foes, they organized Mother’s Friendship Day picnics, where, in 1870, Julia Ward Howe’s “Mother’s Day Proclamation,” calling for women to take an active political role in promoting peace, was widely read.

On Mother’s Day at the New York Society, we often quote this proclamation, which begins with these words:

“Arise, all women who have hearts, whether your baptism be that of water or of tears! Say firmly: ‘We will not have great questions decided by irrelevant agencies, our husbands shall not come to us, reeking with carnage, for caresses and applause. . .

‘Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn all that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience. We women of one country will be too tender of those of another country to allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs.’”

This year I call upon women who choose to be mothers to be tender toward women who choose not to be. It is high time that we respected all reproductive choices.

I chose to give birth to two children. My brother also has two children. Our two siblings have none: cats, but no human children. It’s no big deal. But apparently for many people it is.

“Parenthood as a Moral Imperative? Moral Outrage and the Stigmatization of Voluntarily Childfree Women and Men” is the title of a scholarly article written by Leslie Ashburn-Nardo. Her study, which appeared in the publication Sex Roles, cited 30 years of research that has consistently found that “non-breeders” (as opposed to the infertile) are disliked. For her, then, the question wasn’t whether society hates people who don’t want children, but why it hates them so much. “Having children is obviously a more typical decision, so perhaps people are rightfully surprised when they meet a married adult who, with their partner, has chosen to not have children,” she explained. “That they are also outraged by child-free people is what’s novel about this work.”

My friends who choose not to have children face backlash of an extraordinarily personal nature. People who are outraged that women who seek abortions are subjected to such behavior, often don’t think twice of extolling the joys of parenthood to couples who choose to enjoy their own companionship without adding to the world’s population. I propose renaming this complicated holiday “Mother by Choice Day.” Let us choose to care for one another with all our hearts.

Leader’s Message – “My Father, the Feminist” – March 2018

February 28, 2018

My mother was born a year after women won suffrage and never missed voting in an election. It was as religious to her as going to confession on Saturday and receiving communion on Sunday. She worked full-time as a secretary from the day she graduated high school until she retired and was in charge of our family’s finances. Yet she was not a feminist. She didn’t encourage my sister and me to leave home for college and was embarrassed when we kept our names after marrying. We never experienced her support for our professional lives.

Dad was the feminist in our family. He grew up in western New York State with parents and siblings who shared equally the running of their share-cropping farms: never owning a place of their own, often packing up and moving from one place to another. A family farm economy is demanding and requires that all hands work. A drive with Dad in the country would reveal one field after another in different towns where he had driven a team of horses or mules. Name that crop was a game we played and, of course, Dad always won because I was never a farmer. Dad made sure that my sister and I went to college and traveled to other countries. It was important to him that we make our own ways in the world.

In our Ethics for Families program, children are learning about Malala Yousafzai, whose father Ziauddian also encouraged her education. In an area of Pakistan dominated by the misogynist Taliban, he ran a school for both boys and girls. Most of us adults know how Malala became known around the world. On October 9, 2012, at the age of 15, when she was riding a bus with friends on their way home from school, a masked gunman boarded the bus, demanded to know which girl was Malala, and fired at her; the bullet hit the left side of her head and then traveled down her neck. Two other girls were also injured in the attack.

Following the attack, Malala said, “The terrorists thought that they would change our aims and stop our ambitions, but nothing changed in my life except this: weakness, fear and hopelessness died. Strength, power and courage were born.” On her 16th birthday, Malala Yousafzai gave a speech at the United Nations emphasizing education and urging world leaders to change their repressive policies toward women and girls. In 2013 she also published her first book, I Am Malala, and the following year became the youngest person to win the Nobel Peace Prize.

Like my father, hers is a feminist: someone who believes in, supports, and advocates for women’s rights and equality to men.

In a patriarchal society where “women are not known in public and their names are only known to family members,” Ziauddin named his daughter after a legendary 19th Century Pashtun warrior heroine, Malalai of Maiwund. “Malalai had had a voice and I wanted my Malala to have the same,” he said. “That she would have freedom and be brave and be known by her name. . . Don’t ask me what I did. Ask me what I did not do. I did not clip her wings, and that’s all.”

At this year’s World Economic Forum at Davos, Malala said, “Feminism is just another word for equality and no one should object to equality. It just means that women should have equal rights to men. It’s not as complicated as some people have made it.”

It’s not complicated at all and yet another generation of women has taken to the streets demanding rights still denied them. Today more men join women: their mothers, sisters, and daughters, aunts and nieces, friends and lovers. They carry their children on their shoulders, wanting them to see the thousands of people gathered, showing them how the world can be when we march for equality for everyone.

Dad never marched alongside me, but he was, and is, always with me. One expects to hear kind words about the deceased during calling hours at a funeral home, a memorial service, and a burial site. What people told me after my father’s death were the many ways in which they felt loved and supported by him. He didn’t refer to himself as a feminist, but he acted as one, treating everyone with dignity and respect, no exceptions.

Malala and I are lucky.

Leader’s Message – “What the World Needs Now Is Love” – February 2018

January 13, 2018

Remember the 1965 song, “What the World Needs Now Is Love”? Hal David wrote the lyrics, and Burt Bacharach composed the music. Bacharach, who was on quite a roll back then, initially didn’t believe in the song and was reluctant to play it for Jackie DeShannon, who loved it, recorded it and made it popular. It has since been recorded or performed live by over 100 artists and used on many movie soundtracks.

I wonder why Bacharach was reluctant. Did the sentiment seem too trite or banal? The song has a simple melody that’s easy to learn. The lyrics tell us (or a creator) that the world has plenty of meadows, cornfields and wheat fields to grow; plenty of sunbeams and moonbeams to shine, too; what it really needs is love. Even today, half a century later, the world still needs love. Such a message is timeless.

What was happening in 1965? On January 2, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. began a drive to register Black voters. Two days later, President Lyndon B. Johnson gave his “Great Society” State of the Union address. Almost a month later, on February 1, Dr. King and 700 demonstrators were arrested in Selma, Alabama. Later that month, on February 21, Malcolm X was assassinated by Nation of Islam followers at the Audubon Ballroom in Harlem. And on “Bloody Sunday” (March 7), Alabama troopers and civil rights demonstrators clashed, galvanizing the nation’s leaders to pass the Voting Rights Act of 1965. King returned to Alabama on March 21 to lead a march from Selma to Montgomery, arriving in the state capitol on March 25. Riots broke out in the Watts area of southeast Los Angeles on August 11. On the following day, the west side of Chicago also broke out in riots.

Meanwhile, the war in Vietnam escalated, and protesters organized. The U.S. occupied the Dominican Republic in April during its civil war, and stayed over a year. The space and nuclear arms races were also well underway.

It was a precarious year, to say the least. I was fourteen years old and a veteran of school “duck-and-cover” and bomb shelter drills. I was unaware of Malcolm X at that age, but I had loved John F. Kennedy (as did all Irish Catholic girls) and mourned his death. I remember singing “What the World Needs Now is Love” at the top of my voice. It was both a plea and a prayer.

The song was remixed in 1971 by disc jockey Tom Clay, who worked at radio station KGBS in Los Angeles, into a social commentary. He added “Abraham, Martin and John” to the title. It began with a man asking a young boy to define the words bigotry, segregation and hatred, followed by a soundbite of a drill sergeant leading a platoon into training and gunfire sound effects. Then we hear the song, interspersed with excerpts of speeches by Kennedy and King and soundbites of news coverage of each one’s assassination.

What would we hear in a remix of this song today, I wonder. With a racist occupying the White House and the Voting Rights Act in shreds, with prolonged military presence overseas and an administration’s denial of climate change, we are arguably worse off than we were back in 1965.

Still, I refuse to lose hope, and neither should you. Our history is replete with stories of greed and generosity, prejudice and acceptance, hate and love. We must learn from that history. As individuals and as a nation, we must choose love.

That’s the message I heard at this year’s Mayor’s Interfaith Breakfast on January 11 at the New York Public Library. Imagine a great hall filled with clergy representing all the religions of our city. At my table alone were a Mormon (with whom I chatted about my hometown, Palmyra, birthplace of Mormonism), a Muslim woman (sans hijab), a resplendent Baptist African-American couple, two evangelical Christians preparing for a journey to the Holy Land, and two Hindus from Queens. The morning was a veritable lovefest: celebrating our diversity of faiths and a commitment to unity of social justice action.

Rev. Michael A. Walrond, Jr. from First Corinthian Baptist Church gave the introductory invocation. He said, “Take love seriously. Take seriously who you are called to be. Take our humanity seriously,” to which I heartily responded, “Amen!”

What the world needs now, has always needed, and will always need is love, sweet love, because that’s “the only thing that there’s just too little of.” Choose to love not just some, but everyone.

Leader’s Message – “Undone by Women” – January 2018

December 20, 2017

“As we come marching, marching, we bring the greater days
The rising of the women means the rising of the human race.
No more the drudge and idle, ten that toil where one reposes,
But a sharing of life’s glories, bread and roses, bread and roses.”

These are lyrics from the union song, “Bread and Roses” They commemorate the strike begun on January 12, 1912 in Lawrence, MA, one of the most significant struggles in the history of the American working class. Although a new state law had reduced the work week in textile mills from 56 to 54 hours, the bosses sped up the looms and cut the average wage to $6 a week, putting workers on the edge of starvation.

In 1905, sixty years after its founding as a textile city, Lawrence became home to the American Woolen Company, the world’s biggest textile plant. Advanced technology enabled the owners to replace skilled workers with lower-paid Arab, Russian, and East European immigrants. By the time of the strike, workers from 25 different nations lived within a one-mile radius of the mill under deplorable conditions. It is estimated that over one-third of mill workers died before the age of 25 years, mostly from respiratory diseases, and nearly half of the children died before their sixth birthday. Women were subjected to sexual harassment and assault.

“Short pay! Short pay!” rang out when the wage cut was announced, and 23,000 workers left the mills to pour into the streets. The National guard was called out.

So, too, was Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, a 21-year old organizer for the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), who organized the strike. In contrast to the American Federation of Labor (AFL), comprised of white men who barred women and Black workers, the IWW, formed by socialists, emphasized unity and solidarity. Women led the Lawrence strike, and every union meeting was translated into 25 different languages. They sang, put on dances and debates, and invented the moving picket line. Flynn educated women and immigrants about the oppression they faced.

After police beat one pregnant woman so brutally that she had a miscarriage, the national and international outcry forced Congress to open an investigation, putting pressure on the bosses, and on March 14, strikers won some of their demands for pay raises and overtime pay. Sadly, this victory was short-lived. Nonetheless, at a time before they had suffrage, women persisted and prevailed. They would never forget.

Over a century later, women have gained the vote, but not equal rights, and sexual harassment is as prevalent now as it was in the textile mills of Lawrence. How we had wished it would be otherwise! The first time I saw the #MeToo meme was on my daughter’s Facebook timeline, and I immediately felt that I had failed her. I had been subjected to sexual harassment, but it was not supposed to happen to her.

The “Silence Breakers,” named Person of the Year 2017 by Time magazine, have succeeded where other women have failed, bringing down movie mogul Harvey Weinstein and triggering an avalanche of sexual harassment accusations and consequent resignations. Of course, two Black women blazed the trail.

In 1991, Anita Hill became a national figure when she accused former boss and U.S. Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment. “I did what my conscience told me to do, and you can’t fail if you do that,” she said. And in 1997, long before hashtags, Tarana Burke, listening to a 13-year old girl tell her about being sexually abused, gave birth to the Me Too campaign. “It really bothered me, and it sat in my spirit for a long time,” she said. Ten years later, she founded Just Be Inc., a non-profit organization devoted to helping victims of sexual harassment and assault.

Salma Hayek, who began her acting career in Mexico, who suffered at the hands of Mr. Weinstein, wrote, “I am inspired by those who had the courage to speak out, especially in a society that elected a president who has been accused of sexual harassment and assault by more than a dozen women and whom we have all heard make a statement about how a man in power can do anything he wants to women. Well, not anymore.”

Not anymore? Only if we organize as Black women in Alabama did last month to ensure the victory of Democratic Senator Doug Jones, who prosecuted two Ku Klux Klan members for the 1963 Birmingham church bombing that killed four Black girls, over alleged pedophile and confirmed racist Roy Moore. Only if we stand together and march in the Women’s March 2018.

Millions of women across the country will reprise last year’s marches during the weekend of January 20-21. Here in New York City, the theme is “March Into Action,” and it will take place from 10 am to 4 pm on Saturday, January 20, targeting a route along Central Park West with the rally beginning just north of Columbus Circle. I have registered a group from our Society to participate and will keep you apprised of details. For more information, visit https://womensmarchalliance.org/2018-womens-march-on-nyc/2018wm-faq/

We cannot let this moment end until all of our goals for women’s empowerment are met. Remember: “The rising of the women means the rising of the human race.”

Leader’s Message – “Be a Muslim Ally!” – December 2017

December 20, 2017

One of the joys of my profession is engaging with clergy colleagues from other faith traditions in social justice and university campus settings. My pastoral counseling training also included students from different faiths, and it deepened my appreciation for how much we have in common. All of us serve communities of people striving to be their best selves and to nurture loving relationships. The principles of group dynamics apply everywhere, so we learned together, supported one another, and stay in touch.

Ethical societies include religious literacy in their curriculum for children. Growing up in the Brooklyn Society, my children had the opportunity to visit churches, synagogues, Hindu temples, and mosques. Their friends in public school grew up in all of these faith traditions. Learning about them made them better friends. How I wish everyone had this experience!

Last month I participated in a Muslim Ally Zone Training at New York University, where I serve in the Center for Global Spiritual Life as Humanist Chaplain. Two presenters addressed a full house comprised of students, faculty, administrators, residence advisors, and chaplains. We were all eager to learn more and distressed to hear that, even on a liberal campus in a multicultural city, Muslims face not only discrimination but also harassment and violence.

There is a negative stigma associated with the terms “Muslim” and “Islam.” Most Americans know very little, and misinformation is rampant. Indeed, 21% believe that ISIS is a proper depiction of Islam. As one presenter said, “We talk a lot about our faith, but people don’t listen. I choose not to wear a hijab, but my sisters do. No one forces them. It is a way in which they practice their faith and assert their rights as Americans. As individuals, we are all free to practice our faith in different ways.”

Here are some basic facts:
• There are 1.7 billion Muslims in the world or 23% of the world’s population. They are racially diverse, live in 77 countries, and 62% live in the Asia-Pacific area.
• Islam is the second largest and fastest growing religion in the world. One in five Muslims is a convert.
• The first Muslims arrived in America as slaves in the 17th century and now number 3.3 million or 1% of U.S. population. Dearborn, MI has the largest number of Muslims in the country, and Queens has the largest number in NYC.
• One out of eight NYC public school students (12%) are Muslim, and in Queens, Brooklyn, and the Bronx they number as many as 20%.
• Anti-Muslim violence remained significantly higher in 2015 than pre-9/11 levels, with American Muslims up to nine times more likely to suffer violent attacks.
• There has been a 197% increase in the number of anti-Muslim hate groups up from 2015. These organizations portray Muslims as fundamentally alien, irrational, intolerant and violent. The propaganda they disseminate about Islam is overtly hostile.

The other presenter relayed his experience of growing up on eastern Long Island where, on 9/11, he was a high school freshman and one of only ten minority students in a class of 600. “I have heard every terrible thing you can imagine about being Muslim,” he said. “I moved, but my parents still live there and are often told to ‘go back to where you came from.’ The sad thing is that we’re used to it and it doesn’t bother us anymore. I worry about my young children.” He reminded us that when Ted Cruz was a presidential candidate in 2016, he said, “I am a Christian first. I am an American second,” and asked whether it would be acceptable for any Muslim candidate to put her or his faith first.

What are we to do when hate crimes targeting Muslims are at an all-time high? Be an ally. Ask your friends, neighbors and colleagues how you can support them. If you are a bystander to harassment, engage the victim and offer a friendly presence. Accompanying this essay is a helpful list from WNYC’s “On the Media” program. Above all, educate yourself about Islam and visit a mosque. Ask questions and participate in social action in support of Muslims.

Omid Safi, Director of Duke University’s Islamic Studies Center, offers these words: “Examine your own heart, explore your soul, and then tell me something about your heart and your soul. . . Have that conversation, that glance, that touch. Be a healing conversation, one filled with grace and presence.”

Leader’s Message – “Requiem for a Nation” – November 2017

November 3, 2017

How many more tears can we shed? What more can be said that hasn’t already been said? Where is the magic incantation that can break this evil spell?

I have no answers, only questions, both rhetorical and existential.

Once upon a time, I believed that we could learn to listen to one another across great divides, that even if we couldn’t love those who hold different views and values, we could respect them and all agree that life, no matter whose, is precious and worth saving.

On Sunday mornings, we often sing Bob Dylan’s lyrics: “How many deaths will it take till we know that too many people have died? The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind. The answer is blowin’ in the wind.”

But what if we know how to curtail gun violence and the majority of Americans want to enact restrictions on gun sales and ownership, but a powerful and well-financed minority prevails?

Last year I gave a platform address called “Gun-orrhea, America’s Most Life-Threatening Social Disease,” in which I cited the latest facts and figures, positions and strategies. On the day before I spoke, one person was killed and seven injured in a shooting in a Florida club; a 26-year old Wisconsin man, who was fired from a grocery store for harassing a 24-year old female co-worker, bought a gun legally and waited for her to leave work to shoot her in the stomach and head, saying “It was easy to kill her because she had ruined my life”; and an 11-year old boy in Tennessee was found guilty of murdering an 8-year old girl with his father’s 12-gauge shotgun because she wouldn’t bring her puppy outside. That was just an ordinary day in the United States of America. Since that day many more people have tragically died, some accidentally and others intentionally.

On the day I wrote this column, a California college student injured in the Las Vegas music festival mass shooting filed a lawsuit against the hotel owners, the concert promoter, and bump-stock manufacturers, claiming they were all liable, and the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a landmark decision affirming the government’s constitutional authority to strictly regulate gun shops.

Another part of that ordinary day was former NYC Mayor Mike Bloomberg’s promise to match every donation to Everytown for Gun Safety, a gun control group he created. “US has a gun violence problem,” Bloomberg tweeted. “@Everytown & @MomsDemand are working to solve it. I’ll match every donation. Give now.” I’ve decided to take him up on this. How about you?

What else can we do instead of holding a requiem and solemnly chanting for the dead? In his recent column, “If Only Stephen Paddock Were a Muslim,” Thomas Friedman wrote, “So there is only one remedy: Get power. If you are as fed up as I am, then register someone to vote or run for office yourself or donate money to someone running to replace these cowardly legislators with a majority for common-sense gun laws. This is about raw power, not persuasion.”

Until that day, I’ll listen to our children. One glorious Sunday morning they invited us to the rooftop playground to meet Uliks Gryka, a Sufi mystic who had visited their class. While this dervish donned his robe and prepared to whirl, they chanted lines from Rumi, a 13th-century Persian poet and Sufi mystic:

“Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing
and rightdoing there is a field.
I’ll meet you there.”

 

Leader’s Message – “Role of Congregations in the Age of Trump” – October 2017

October 3, 2017

If you are like me, and engaged in social media, you may also have experienced some tension in your online relationships since the presidential election. Political differences have been exacerbated since November and, while I navigate in-person encounters fairly well (sometimes by agreeing to “check my politics – and religion – at the door”), I receive pushback on some articles and memes that I post on my personal Facebook (FB) timeline and sometimes “take the bait” by responding to what I perceive as objectionable content on my friends’ timelines. This was particularly true in the aftermath of this summer’s domestic terrorist attack in Charlottesville, Virginia.

When the KKK literally removed their masks, I metaphorically removed the gloves and called out the racism of Trump supporters. Yes, some of them were single-issue voters whose concerns had been abortion and gun control, about which we vigorously disagreed, but now the stakes had grown exponentially. The President of the United States took the side of white supremacists and neo-Nazis, and there was no middle ground to defend. Anyone who did not condemn his blatant racism was complicit, and I did not hold back.

An online friend whom I’ve known since childhood confronted me on what she called the hypocrisy of calling myself clergy and yet expressing such strong opinions. Although I rarely represent myself as clergy on my personal timeline (reserving that role for the society’s public FB page and the Parenting at Ethical and Weddings at Ethical pages that I host), she knows my profession and felt that I should remain neutral. This called to mind historian Howard Zinn’s famous quote, and the title of his biographical documentary, “You can’t be neutral on a moving train.” He also said, “I don’t believe it’s possible to be neutral. The world is already moving in certain directions. And to be neutral, to be passive in a situation like that is to collaborate with whatever is going on. And I, as a teacher, do not want to be a collaborator with whatever is happening in the world. I want myself, as a teacher, and I want you as students, to intercede with whatever is happening in the world.

I want myself, as clergy, and I want the members of our ethical community, to intercede with whatever is happening in the world. Ethical Culture’s commitment to social justice is what drew me to this religion, provided my children with opportunities for community service, and inspired me to become a professional leader. Founder Felix Adler’s passion for addressing the spiritual pain of a divided conscience by making our lives “all of a piece” continues to resonate with me so that mine is a vocation in its true sense of calling forth, calling out, and calling together. His charge to the first gathering of members in 1876 to “at all times respect every honest conviction” and to “be one with us where there is nothing to divide – in action” inspires us today to make ending white supremacy our rallying call.

We are facing unprecedented challenges to our democracy and civil society from an administration that is at best morally ambiguous and at worst promotes a false equivalency between those who advocate white supremacy and those seeing to eliminate it. Lives and livelihoods are put at risk by an uncaring and unstable president who, as we are learning daily, owes his election to Russia.

What are we to do? Take a stand! And we are not alone. Other congregations across the country are taking action, too. While there is appalling hypocrisy on the part of many evangelical Christian clergy and congregations, Jim Wallis of Sojourners calls upon a Christian tradition of commitment to racial and economic justice, encouraging people to require that their pastors preach on the sin of racism from their pulpits and to withhold tithes from churches that won’t speak out and take a stand. African-American clergy remind us of Dr. King’s 1963 “Letter from Birmingham Jail” in which he wrote that the “great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens Councilor or the Ku Klux Klanner but the white moderate who is more devoted to order than to justice.”

Every day I look for a moment of hope to post on my FB timeline. On Tuesday, September 12, it was legislation, introduced as a joint resolution, passed unanimously in the Senate and the House, and presented to President Trump for his signature that called for a forceful denunciation of his racist extremism. It states: “S.J.Res.49 – A joint resolution condemning the violence and domestic terrorist attack that took place during events between August 11 and August 12, 2017, in Charlottesville, Virginia, recognizing the first responders who lost their lives while monitoring the events, offering deepest condolences to the families and friends of those individuals who were killed and deepest sympathies and support to those individuals who were injured by the violence, expressing support for the Charlottesville community, rejecting White nationalists, White supremacists, the Ku Klux Klan, neo-Nazis, and other hate groups, and urging the President and the President’s Cabinet to use all available resources to address the threats posed by those groups.”

Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-VA) said, “I hope this bipartisan action will help heal the wounds left in the aftermath of this tragedy and send a clear message to those that seek to divide our country that there is no place for hate and violence.”

To which I can only add “Amen.”

Leader’s Message – “Rally ‘Round the Gay Pride Flag – Again” – June 2017

June 1, 2017

When the result of the 2016 presidential election sank in, many social justice organizations and community groups gathered their members to assess the impact it would have and to mourn. We held circles here at Ethical with our staff and members. The one that I joined at New York University, where I serve as Humanist Chaplain, was especially painful. Members of the campus LGBTQ community wept uncontrollably. They, like other marginalized Americans, Muslims, and undocumented immigrants, knew that they had a great deal to lose with an unsupportive, indeed an antagonistic, administration. Trump’s daughter Ivanka may count LGBTQ people among her friends, but there was no illusion that she could protect them. His unholy alliance with socially conservative evangelical Christians would drive his agenda, as it has other Republicans.

 

Questions flooded the offices of LGBTQ advocacy groups nationwide following Trump’s victory. GLAAD, the world’s largest LGBTQ media advocacy organization, maintains The Trump Accountability Project (TAP at http://www.glaad.org/trump), a resource for journalists which catalogues the anti-LGBTQ statements and actions of Trump and those in his circle.

 

While Vice President Pence has been unequivocal in his opposition to LGBTQ rights (having once supported the use of federal funding to treat people “seeking to change their sexual behavior” and tried unsuccessfully to amend his home state of Indiana’s state constitution to ban same-sex marriage), Trump’s position on this, as on many other issues, varies. His “religious liberty” executive order wasn’t as discriminatory as LGBTQ advocates had feared. Indeed, the conservative Heritage Foundation called it “woefully inadequate,” and Bryan Fischer, radio host for the American Family Association, angry that the order doesn’t allow bakers, florists and adoption agencies to discriminate, blamed Ivanka who “wore out her red pencil eviscerating the original order, leaving us with [an order] which has very nice language but is virtually entirely lacking in substance.” Nonetheless, he reversed Obama-era protections that allowed transgender students in public schools to use bathrooms and locker room facilities that correspond with their gender identity, reigniting the debate on whether guidance on use is a state or federal rights issue.

 

Here’s some good news. According to Human Rights Campaign Legal Director Sarah Warbelow, “Congress and Trump do not have the power to unilaterally undo marriage equality.” The Supreme Court has deemed same-sex marriage a “fundamental right,” and all five of the judges who ruled in favor of it are still on the bench.

 

There is much that we can do to support LGBTQ rights, from donating to advocacy groups to lobbying our local, state and national representatives. We can also march on Sunday, June 25.

Here’s a reminder of the parade’s history. A year after the police raiding of the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village on the morning of June 28, 1969, the first Gay Pride March was held by the Christopher Street Liberation Day Committee to commemorate the riots. In 1984, Heritage of Pride was founded to take over the planning. Last year, the newly-identified NYC Pride held over a dozen events in addition to the march, which included 350 unique contingents. This year’s Grand Marshals are the American Civil Liberties Union; Brooke Guinan, a 29-year old trans-woman firefighter; Krishna Stone, Director of Community Relations at Gay Men’s Health Crisis; and Geng Le, leader in the movement for LGBTQ equality in the People’s Republic of China.

 

When I interned at the NY Society in 2002, I marched in the Gay Pride Parade with a contingent of members that included Meg Chapman and Mo Malekshahi with their toddler Clara. Much has happened since then. Many gains have been realized over the years, and people haven’t felt the need to march. This year it’s time to rally around the pride flag again. Celebrate the gains and fight for the rights that might be lost.

Image result for gay pride images

 

Leader’s Message – “Remembering Dr. Spetter in the Trump Era” – April 2017

April 21, 2017

Last month I received the following email from Professor Dr. Youri Devuyst from the Institute for European Studies at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel in Belgium.
“I am contacting you regarding the remarkable writings by the late Matthew Ies Spetter. . . My now 86 year old father, a humanist leader in Belgium, who was one of the transatlantic friends of Dr. Spetter and Howard Radest, recently drew my attention to Dr. Spetter’s book Man – The Reluctant Brother: An Exploration of Human Courage.

“Starting with a strong plea for ‘truth,’ the analysis (published in 1967 by Fieldston Press) provides a truly outstanding insight in the Trump era. Few of today’s observations match the depth of pages 157-171 on ‘A homebred fascism?’ and ‘The success of unreason.’ At the same time, the book offers a path for living together in human community, as brothers, based on what Dr. Spetter calls a ‘Passio Humana.’

“I think it really matters that the wisdom displayed in Dr. Spetter’s book is remembered, especially in the Ethical Culture movement. While I am sure you do, I also wanted to let you know that Dr. Spetter’s writings have not been forgotten on this side of the Atlantic.”

Dr. Spetter’s inspiring life and words have not been forgotten here, but I confess that I needed this reminder to return to him for guidance in these troubling times.
After seeing Nazis throw children into a truck from a Jewish orphanage in his native Holland, he joined the Dutch Resistance at the age of 23 and worked to help Jewish families escape. He later worked with Allied military intelligence before he was captured, tortured and sentenced to death in 1943. “In Holland you were either on the side of the executioners or the victims,” he said. “You had to make an existential choice.” Two years later, weighing 68 pounds, he fled through the woods to escape the Buchenwald concentration camp and later testified as an Allied witness at the International War Crimes Tribunal in Nuremburg, Germany. Dr. Spetter was awarded the Resistance Cross by the government of the Netherlands.

In 1951, Dr. Spetter and his family moved to the United States where he discovered the Ethical Movement and soon became an Ethical Culture Leader, serving the Riverdale-Yonkers Society, The Encampment for Citizenship, and the Ethical Culture Fieldston Schools for several decades. He also founded the Riverdale Mental Health Clinic in 1960, which remains an important community resource today. Among his many written works, Man, the Reluctant Brother remains my favorite. Dr. Devuyst is right: It does indeed provide insight into the Trump era.

This book illustrates what Dr. Spetter called his “militant humanism” and analyzes the impermissible fanaticism that allows the killing of innocents. From his experience as clergy, counselor, and professor of Social Psychology, he called for a nurturing of trust as the fundamental law of life, a nurturing of the fullness of human capacity, without the delusion of perfectionism.

“I need truth,” he wrote, “because I was an eyewitness to the premeditated murder of children. The killers were men and women of a nation much akin to my own. The children were ours. I need truth because my generation allowed the ultimately impermissible and because such killing continues. Men everywhere, while protesting their abhorrence, are still willing to permit the impermissible, still willing to kill as ‘a necessary evil,’ still willing to appease their conscience with justifications which fasten the tyranny of evil upon their souls. . . I have seen this

[atrocities] and speak of it, not with sentimentality but with outrage and I will not permit it to be locked from your heart.”

Today we are witnessing outrageous acts against fellow Americans and immigrants, against our environment and our children’s future. Some can be attributed directly to our new president in the form of his executive orders and his appointment of cabinet officers. Others are performed by domestic terrorists emboldened by his support of their racism, misogyny, and other forms of hatred. We must not allow this behavior to be locked from our hearts. We must stand up and take action, resisting any policy that treats human beings as “others” to be dismissed, derided and deported.

Dr. Spetter ends with a note of hope: “I hold deeply that each life is a gift which the centuries bestow upon the continuity of existence. A Passio Humana, a passion for Man, is what will negate totalitarianism and oppression, it will open the jail-doors of history, provided our mutuality and love outpace our tools.  All of us are constantly close to death and yet we are also in touch with the perpetuation of life through what we create and build.”

 

Dr. Matthew Ies died peacefully at his home on December 30, 2012, surrounded by his family.

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