Leader’s Message – “Let’s Count Our Blessings (Yes, Blessings!)” – January 2019

January 11, 2019

One day a student asked me to give the class I was teaching a blessing. I was taken aback, stuck on that word: blessing. The class was called “Humanist Spirituality,” and we were in a classroom at Union Theological Seminary. My students were candidates in the Master of Divinity program, and we were discussing a passage in an excellent book by philosopher Robert C. Solomon entitled Spirituality for the Skeptic: The Thoughtful Love of Life.

 

I often teach classes on humanism to self-identified humanists; this was the first time my students were theists. I had suggested the course to the seminary because I suspected that I would find some “not-yet-unidentified as” humanists there. What I found were “humanistic theists” or people who had a transcendental, not a supernatural, sense of deity. Throughout the semester, we compared theology and philosophy, shared our own experiences, and sought a common language.

 

Some words are rejected as irrational by (or fraught with emotional weight for) humanists. Words like sacred and holy, spirituality and blessing can conjure up an otherworldliness that we eschew. Life in this natural world is enough. It holds enough wonder and awe without belief in an afterlife or the supernatural. But these words can also describe deeply human experiences, ones of connection to nature and other people. Solomon writes “that if spirituality means anything it means thoughtfulness. . . [and], like philosophy, involves those questions that have no ultimate answers, no matter how desperately our various doctrines and dogmas try to provide them.”

 

One day we were discussing a quotation from Albert Camus’s novel, The Stranger: “I opened my heart to the benign indifference of the universe.” For me, this existentialist philosopher, who confronted the Absurd and also wrote, “I know of only one duty, and that is to love,” is a humanist “saint.” I find in his work a freedom and humor that comfort me. This was, however, not the case for one of my students whose theism was expressed in a purpose to the universe and a special place for humans.

 

And this brings me back to her request for a blessing. If the universe is indifferent, what does it mean to feel gratitude for one’s life? Is it a blessing to be alive? Should we count our blessings – and bless others?

 

I thought about the phrase I recited as a child in the confessional box at St. Anne’s Church: “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned.” It is a request to listen and accept the litany of sins to follow. I also remembered Irving Berlin’s song, “Count Your Blessings,” which he used in the 1954 movie “White Christmas.” He credited his doctor with suggesting that he try “counting his blessings” as a way to deal with his insomnia. The final lyrics are: “If you’re worried and you can’t sleep/ Just count your blessings instead of sheep/ And you’ll fall asleep counting your blessings.”

 

I decided to express gratitude to my students. They challenged me in ways that I hadn’t expected, and I had learned as much as I had taught. They trusted me and each other enough to share their personal experiences. They were a blessing. “OK,” she persisted, “but will you bless us?” Had I not been a blessing to them, too, I wondered? And then I really listened and understood. “I bless the journeys that you have undertaken to find purpose in your lives and to engage others with compassion.” It worked, to judge by the nods and smiles I received.

 

“Blessing” is variously defined as approval, encouragement, a thing conducive to happiness, and a grace said before a meal. To “bless” is to consecrate by religious rite, endow favor, or invoke a wish for good health. It seems to me that we would do well to both count our blessings and bless others. There is much work ahead of us this year to further our social justice mission. Let us also remember that we are blessed with a history of activism that inspires us, a meeting house that holds and supports us, and a community of members that strive to be their best ethical selves.

 

(By the way, next semester I’m teaching a class at Union on humanist ceremonies.)

 

 

 

 

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Leader’s Message – “Another Land Beyond Beliefs” – December 2018

January 11, 2019

Last month I packed my passport and warm clothes and traveled north, crossing the border into a kinder and gentler land. I met many people there who had traveled from near and far to form a community of many faiths and shared values. They warmed my heart, and it felt good, especially when I thought about the murders at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh on October 27th. During the first week of November, the city of Toronto hosted the seventh assembly of the Parliament of the World’s Religions. It was the third one that I had attended. Ethical Culture leaders and members have participated in every parliament since the first one was convened in Chicago in 1893.

 

The theme of this parliament was both inspiring and daunting: “The Promise of Inclusion, the Power of Love: Pursuing Global Understanding, Reconciliation, and Change.” Hundreds of programs were compiled on an app that we could easily access on our cellphones but it was obvious that we would only be able to attend a sample of what was offered. My daughter Emily Newman and I both gave presentations – hers on “Get Ready for a More Inclusive Generation;” mine with colleague Vanessa Gomez Brake, Associate Dean of Religious Life at the University of Southern California, on “Navigating Secular Identities on University Campuses” – and staffed a table in the exhibit hall sponsored by the American Humanist Association.

 

Throughout the week, people stopped by to visit and thank us. “We need you here. We’re humanists, too. We hold different beliefs but share your values.” It was clear that humanism offered “the promise of inclusion” in the parliament’s theme. We also connected with members of the Oasis Network, which, like Sunday Assembly, offers “a place for the non-religious to come together to celebrate the human experience.” Whenever and wherever the next parliament meets, we agreed that we must collaborate, together with the American Ethical Union and other religious humanist organizations, on expanding our presence and programming.

 

Attendance exceeded 10,000 people from 80 nations and more than 200 unique spiritual backgrounds. Presenters included students, clergy, interfaith leaders, scholars, Nobel Laureates, best-selling authors, and more. These were the six ambitious program tracks:

  • The Dignity of Women Across the World’s Wisdom Traditions
  • Countering War, Hate & Violence with Peace and Love
  • Climate Action: Care for Our Earth, Responsibility for Our Future
  • Indigenous Peoples: The Spiritual Evolution of Humanity & Healing Our Mother Earth
  • Next Generations: Interfaith Has No Age, Youth Voices for Change
  • Justice: Advancing Concrete Change Toward a Just, Peaceful, and Sustainable World

If it sounds overwhelming, it was, but a spirit of generosity prevailed. Everyone shared their faith traditions and stories, hopes and dreams for the future, and creativity in the form of art, film, music, and dance. And throughout the week, the Sikhs fed us, as they had at past parliaments. Langar is a free communal vegetarian meal that is part of every gurdwara or Sikh place of worship and education. Funded entirely by donations and served by volunteers, langar provides an estimated seven million meals a day around the world. People often said, “Let’s meet up at langar.” It was a daily opportunity for food and friendship.

 

When the Parliament of the World’s Religions met in 1993, a century after the first historic gathering in Chicago, a document called “Towards a Global Ethic (An Initial Declaration)” was one of its most significant outcomes. During a two-year period, more than 200 theologians and scholars were consulted, and the declaration was signed by over a hundred religious and spiritual leaders. More commonly known as the Global Ethic, this declaration states that fundamental to all religious faiths are the requirement to treat all persons, without exception, humanely; the Golden Rule of reciprocity; and the demand for peace and justice. Since its ratification, it has inspired other documents such as the Earth Charter, the Charter of Compassion, and a Charter of Forgiveness.

 

As hectic as this week was, I found solace. Every morning I woke up to another onslaught of tragic news headlines and despaired. But I walked over to the conference center with anticipation, eager to learn and share. We created a temporary community of inclusion, love, and hope that changed us for the better and will live on in the work that we do. Until the next time we meet, the Parliament organization will keep us connected. For more information, visit https://www.parliamentofreligions.org/.

 

 

 

Leader’s Message – “Universal Children’s Day” – November 2018

January 11, 2019

In a New York immigration court, young children are representing themselves before judges hearing their cases. Last month 2-year old Fernanda Jacqueline Davila appeared before Judge Randa Zagzoug, who in one afternoon had seen over 30 children between the ages of 2 and 17 years. More children than ever are being held in government custody for longer than ever before. About 13,000 children who came to the United States on their own are being held for months in federally contracted shelters. Hundreds more who were separated from their families at the border are either in shelters or temporary foster care. They have all been stranded by the Trump administration’s determination to keep immigrants from crossing the southwest border of the United States.

 

“We rarely had children under the age of 6 until the last year or so,” said Ashley Tabaddor, president of the National Association of Immigration Judges. “We started seeing them as a regular presence in our docket.” A new government policy has made it more difficult for relatives to claim their children from federal custody. Eleven-year-old Marilyn hoped to join her mother in Florida but because relatives are now required to undergo fingerprinting and background checks, it could take months before they are reunited.

 

Jess Morales Rocketto of Families Belong Together, a coalition of nearly 250 organizations that works “to permanently end family separation and incarceration, seek accountability for the harm that’s been done, and immediately reunite all families who remain torn apart,” highlighted the case of 5-year old Helen, an asylum seeker from Honduras who was detained at the border and persuaded to sign away her rights. “One of the things Helen’s story really showed us is that the Trump Administration never stopped separating children from their families. In fact, they’ve doubled down, but it’s even more insidious now, because they are doing it in the cover of night. We have learned we cannot take this Administration at their word.”

 

Let us remember these children on November 20th when we observe Universal Children’s Day. This marks the date on which the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Declaration of the Rights of the Child in 1959 and the Convention of the Rights of the Child in 1989. The Convention sets out a number of children’s rights including the right to life, to health, to education and to play, as well as the right to family life, to be protected from violence, to not be discriminated against, and to have their views heard.

 

According to UNICEF (United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund), which promotes the principles and provisions of the Convention, it reflects a new vision of the child. “Children are neither the property of their parents nor are they helpless objects of charity. They are human beings and are the subject of their own rights. . .  Previously seen as negotiable, the child’s needs have become legally binding rights. No longer the passive recipient of benefits, the child has become the subject or holder of rights.” (Visit https://www.unicef.org/world-childrens-day for more information.)

Although this is the most widely and rapidly ratified human rights treaty in history, the United States still has not ratified it. Indeed, ours is the only nation that hasn’t. The treaty has never even been sent to the Senate for consent and approval. What is our excuse?

 

According to Sarah Mehta, ACLU Human Rights Researcher, “While there is no good reason for the United States not to ratify the CRC, there are several reasons why we urgently need it. Ratifying the convention is not just about saving face in the international community — it will require us to confront some hard truths about the exceptionally bad way we treat children in the United States and to work to bring our laws and practices in line with human rights.”

 

I couldn’t agree more, and this year I plan to celebrate Universal Children’s Day by petitioning our government to ratify the Convention on Children’s Rights. You can, too, by visiting the Campaign for US Ratification at http://www.childrightscampaign.org/. This volunteer-driven network of academics, attorneys, child and human rights advocates, educators, members of religious and faith-based communities, physicians, representatives from non-governmental organizations (NGOs), students, and other concerned citizens believes that children and youth are our most important resource in an increasingly interconnected global community. Even if the current Senate is unlikely to act, our letters, emails, petitions, and personal visits will keep this issue and our support before them.

 

Leader’s Message – “LGBT History Month” – October 2018

September 13, 2018

We all know that June is Gay Pride Month but did you know that October is Gay History Month? In order to coincide with National Coming Out Day on October 11th, this month was designated and first celebrated in 1994 as an annual observance of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender history. Rodney Wilson, a Missouri high school teacher, had gathered together other teachers and community leaders to form the first coordinating committee, choosing October not only because of Coming Out Day but also because public schools are then in session, and they felt it important to include this history in their curriculum.

 

Early supporters and members of the first coordinating committee included: Kevin Jennings of the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN); Kevin Boyer of the Gerber/Hart Gay and Lesbian Library and Archives in Chicago; Paul Varnell, writer for the Windy City Times; Torey Wilson, Chicago area teacher; Johnda Boyce, women’s studies major at Columbus State, and Jessea Greenman of UC-Berkeley. In addition to support from gay and lesbian organizations, the inaugural month was recognized with official proclamations by Governors William Weld of Massachusetts and Lowell Weicker of Connecticut and Mayors Thomas Menino of Boston and Wellington Webb of Denver.

 

By the second annual celebration in October 1995, LGBT History Month had received mainstream coverage in Newsweek magazine. Nonetheless, there was some controversy, especially when Wilson and the Gay and Lesbian Caucus of the National Education Association (NEA) pressed for and received an endorsement of LGBT History Month. Phyllis Schlafly’s Eagle Forum and Beverly LaHaye’s Concerned Women for America bought full-page ads in newspapers condemning the NEA and warning parents: “It [LGBT History Month] may be celebrated at your school before the month is over. Please call now. This must be stopped.”

 

They succeeded. At the 1996 Representative Assembly, NEA delegates voted to remove specific mention of all history months from their resolutions, even long-established Black History Month and Women’s History Month.

 

Over the next 10 years, LGBT History Month continued to grow, with hundreds of colleges and universities, community libraries, and some high schools commemorating a month that provides role models, makes a civil rights statement, and builds community. Since 2006, Equality Forum (https://equalityforum.com/), a national and international LGBT civil rights organization with an educational focus, has provided content, promotion, and resources for LGBT History Month. Each day in October on its website, it highlights an “Icon” with a video, biography, bibliography, images, and other downloadable educational resources including special features for students.

 

I met one of this year’s Icons, Gavin Grimm, at the American Humanist Association Conference in May. Born female, he spoke poignantly of his struggle with sexual identity from an early age, his diagnosis of severe gender dysphoria and subsequent medical treatment, as well as the insults and threats he endured when he tried to use the boys’ bathroom. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed a federal lawsuit on Gavin’s behalf, arguing that the school’s policy violated Title IX laws prohibiting sex discrimination. In 2018 the U.S. District Court ruled that his school violated the rights of transgender students by excluding them from the bathroom matching their gender identity.

 

“I’m just Gavin,” he said. “I have frustrations, stress, hopes, and dreams like millions of young people in America. And like everyone else, sometimes I have to use the restroom. It’s not political. It’s just life.”

 

In recognition of LGBT History Month, we are offering the three programs described in this newsletter. On Thursday, October 4, at 6 pm, Empowering Ethical Elders presents “Wisdom of LGBTQ Elders.” Ethics & the Theater’s selection for Friday, October 12 at 6:30 pm is “The Young Man from Atlanta.” Finally, our Sunday platform on October 28 at 11 am features Jared Fox, who will describe his journey from surviving a hate crime to creating change with LGBTQ youth. Join us for all of these programs and visit Equality Forum to learn more about this important history month.

 

Leader’s Message – “They Are All Our Children” – September 2018

August 2, 2018

This summer we watched as one group of children was trapped in, and subsequently rescued from, a flooded cave in Thailand while another group was separated from their parents at the southwest border of the United States and held hostage to a cruel immigration policy called “zero tolerance.” A New Yorker cartoon captured the contrast by depicting children in a detention cage in Texas watching the rescue in Thailand on television.

 

We all watched. From June 23 when twelve members of the Wild Boar soccer team, aged 11 to 16 years, and their coach became trapped in the Tham Luang caves by monsoon rains to July 2 when British divers found them on a rocky ledge to the death of a former Thai Navy Seal on July 6 from lack of oxygen to the successful conclusion of the complex international rescue effort on July 10, we virtually joined their parents, who maintained a constant vigil outside the caves praying for their safe return.

 

Hundreds of experts from around the world flew in to help. Divers described treacherous conditions in the four kilometer passage that took hours to traverse. “This is the hardest mission we’ve ever done. Every step of the extraction is risky,” said Narongsuk Keasub, a diver for the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand. He added, “I’m quite emotional as a father. Everybody has this feeling because we feel like it’s our children who are inside the cave.” Our children.

 

I try to imagine the desperation that drives parents to risk their and their children’s lives to escape from the violence in their home countries, only to be treated as criminals at the U.S. border and have their children ripped from their arms. What I cannot imagine is the trauma these children experience. But Commander Jonathan White of the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps could imagine it. He and the Office of Refugee Resettlement told the Trump administration last year that “There’s no question that separation of children from parents entails significant potential for traumatic psychological injury to the child.” The administration’s response was that family separation was not a policy.

 

However, on April 6, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced a “zero tolerance” policy and directed federal prosecutors to criminally prosecute all adult migrants entering the country illegally. This policy change resulted in the separation of families because children cannot be held in a detention facility with their parents. Nonetheless, five days later, Homeland Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen testified that there was no policy calling for such separation. Sessions later suggested that children were being “smuggled” and stated, “If you are smuggling a child, then we will prosecute you and that child will be separated from you as required by law.”

 

By May, White House Chief of Staff John Kelly was defending the separation as “a necessary evil” and “a tough deterrent” in the administration’s effort to enforce U.S. border laws. Nielsen, however, still denied that Trump had ordered the separation as a deterrent. On June 15, her office revealed that nearly 2,000 children had been separated from their parents from April 19 to May 31. Five days later, facing a national outcry, Trump signed an executive order, drafted by Nielsen, to keep migrant families together at the U.S.-Mexico border. On June 26, U.S. District Judge Dana Sabraw in San Diego, who described the Trump administration’s handling of the crisis as attempts “to address a chaotic circumstance of the government’s own making,” ordered U.S. immigration authorities to reunite separated families within 30 days, children younger than 5 years within 14 days.

 

Again, the whole world watched. We watched as the deadlines were passed, court updates were filed, and congressional hearings were held. Judge Sabraw said that the government gave no “forethought as to reunification and keeping track of people, and that’s the fallout we’re seeing. There has to be an accounting.” Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill) said, “Someone, someone in this administration has to accept responsibility. We can have border security without bullying. We can be safe without treating toddlers like terrorists,” and called for Nielsen’s resignation.

 

The boys trapped in the Tham Luang caves are now home with their families. At the end of July, U.S. federal officials said in court that 1,012 migrant parents had been reunited with their children. Six hundred other eligible children had not yet been reunified, and no details were offered on 914 minors deemed “ineligible” for reunification.

 

Don’t we feel like these, too, are our children? I do, and thousands of people who feel the same way are coming to their rescue: attorneys with the ACLU and KIND (Kids In Need of Defense), social workers and psychologists, neighbors offering rides and home hospitality to migrant families, and advocacy groups that are drafting corrective legislation and taking to the streets in protest. From the little girls on my block whose lemonade stand raised money for the ACLU to the caravan of Grannies Respond traveling to McAllen, Texas, where they held rallies and vigils with a message of human decency, Americans are standing up for these children and together with their parents.

 

It is important that we find and nurture hope in these hard times. Children themselves inspire me. On August 10, we hosted a youth-led March for Our Lives rally featuring students from Marjorie Douglas Stoneman High School who traveled by bus across the country to register young people to vote and educate them about elected officials who refuse to stand up to the NRA. On July 30, the U.S. Supreme Court denied the administration’s request to halt proceedings in a landmark lawsuit (Juliana v. United States) brought by young people who argue that government policies have exacerbated global climate change in violation of their constitutional rights and those of future generations.

 

And in July I spent a weekend near Jackson, Mississippi with the Encampment for Citizenship, whose youth spent the month learning about and creating participatory democracy. They visited the Civil Rights Museum in Jackson, the Emmett Till Interpretive Center in Sumner, and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice (aka Lynching Museum) in Montgomery, Alabama. They were guests of the Choctaw Nation and engaged in local community service. Then they planned an intergenerational weekend and shared with us adults what they had experienced. I am a mentor to my two buddies, Maryam and Bernice (see photo), who live in the NYC area, but they mentor me in hope.

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Leader’s Message – “Becoming a Humanist” – Summer 2018

July 2, 2018

Twenty years ago this summer, I spent a week at The Mountain Retreat and Learning Center in Highlands, NC atop a peak of the Great Smoky Mountains. It was the second Summer Lay Leadership training offered by the American Ethical Union, and I had heard good reports from friends who participated in 1996. Since my family had abandoned me—son traveling in Europe before entering high school, daughter working as a camp counselor, and husband attending tax law conferences—I felt it was an opportunity to also get away from home and deepen my experience of Ethical Culture. Little did I know that by the end of the week I would seriously consider becoming an Ethical Culture Leader.

 

There have been times in my life, and I imagine in yours as well, when a path seems to be revealed, and a choice must be made. It can be subtle or strong. I’ve used the metaphor of the universe tossing pebbles against my window to get my attention. Sometimes it takes a boulder to come crashing through the pane. It’s easy to ignore an invitation to try something new when old routines and doubts prevail. And yet there is something exciting about change, especially when it holds a promise of transformation: becoming more fully oneself.

 

Lay leadership training that summer, in a setting of wide natural vistas and among people whom I came to love, awakened in me a longing to grow. It was an expansive and inclusive feeling that gained clarity of thought and intention. It remained as I discussed the future with trusted family and friends when I descended from The Mountain. Essential to my personal growth and professional development was The Humanist Institute.

 

For three years, I was a student in the Humanist Studies Program Class X, co-mentored by Ethical Culture Leader Jone Johnson Lewis and Dr. Harvey Sarles, professor of Cultural Studies & Comparative Literature at the University of Minnesota. Their pedagogical methodology was informed by Greek philosopher Socrates and pragmatist philosopher John Dewey. Our reading lists were long and our seminar discussions intense. Humanism came alive for me and I embraced it. Here was a philosophy—and, for me, a religion—for life.

 

Humanism has been defined in many ways since the first Humanist Manifesto was published in 1933, followed by Manifestoes II and III, in 1973 and 2003. Every practicing Humanist contributes to its meaning. My favorite definition is on the American Humanist Association’s website: “Humanism is a progressive lifestance that, without theism or other supernatural beliefs, affirms our ability and responsibility to lead meaningful, ethical lives capable of adding to the greater good of humanity.”

 

My study at The Humanist Institute was accepted as the equivalent of a Master of Divinity degree by Hebrew Union College, where I earned a Doctor of Ministry degree in pastoral care. I was also certified by the American Ethical Union as an Ethical Culture Leader. When the Humanist Institute called me back to co-mentor Class XV with Dr. Anthony Pinn, professor of religion at Rice University, I seized another opportunity to grow over the course of three years of seminars. I was also asked to serve as co-Dean with the late Carol Wintermute and later with Rev. David Breeden, Senior Minister, First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis.

 

At the beginning of 2018, The Humanist Institute joined with the American Humanist Association to establish the AHA Center for Education. It’s exciting to see the new opportunities this provides for all humanists. The Humanist Studies Program courses continue to run but students are no longer required to commit to three years of seminars. This provides a more flexible experience and exposure to more Humanist teachers and students. After completing the pre-requisite course, Course 101: The Humanist Lifestance, you are eligible to take any of the other courses or complete them all to become a Certified Humanist Professional.

 

This summer James Croft, Ethical Culture Leader at the Ethical Society of St. Louis, and I are looking forward to co-teaching the next Course 101 August 24-26 at the American Humanist Association (AHA) office in Washington, DC.  Over the weekend, we will address questions of personal meaning, worth, and significance in a naturalistic way through readings, films, and personal storytelling. Anyone interested in gaining a deeper understanding of humanism and how to apply Humanist values to their daily life is welcome to attend. You have nothing to lose and everything to gain, including become more fully yourself.

 

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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/.

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.