On Light Overcoming Darkness

MLK on darkness

While governments talked of war and security last week, and innocents in Lebanon, Kenya, France, Afghanistan and elsewhere buried their dead, faith communities around the globe struggled to find ways to make sense of it all. Or at least to respond. Places of worship opened their doors, labyrinths were crowded with walkers, friends called friends.

One response in one corner of the world came on Sunday, November 15 in the form of a service of words and music by Muslims, Christians and Jews at San Francisco’s Calvary Presbyterian Church which this writer was fortunate to attend. It is, in all probability, exemplary of other responses across the planet.

Calvary pastor John Weems noted, in welcoming a sanctuary filled with visitors and regulars, that ever since the beginning of history there have been times when it seemed the world would end, “that darkness would overcome. But in fact death and darkness do not get the last word.”

And the next word came from Fatih Ates, San Francisco & East Bay Director of Pacifica Institute: “Peace and blessings on us all.” Ates gave the Adhan, or Muslim Call to Prayer. Conveniently for the non-Arabic speaking members of the congregation, an English translation of the Adhan was published in the bulletin. (It begins with repetitions of “God is Greater,” continues through bearing witness to core precepts and ends with “There is no god except the One God.” Believers and nonbelievers alike might embrace the notion that Somebody Else is still in control.)

Later in the service, Ates spoke of his deep faith, and of how that faith – Islam – “strongly condemns acts of violence. Every terrorist act,” he said, “is against universal values and human values.” He emphasized these truths with quotations from the Qur’an. (Chapter 5, verse 32; Chapter 4, v 93, and Chapter 49 v 13; readers are invited to look them up.) “Terrorism has no religion, no faith” Ates said; “we must fight against extremism.”

Among other messages:

Rabbi Lawrence Raphael of Congregation Sherith Israel referred to the last line of the Kaddish, the prayer said at Jewish funerals and occasionally at other times: “May God who makes peace in heaven . . . make peace upon us.”

Calvary pastor Joann Lee, speaking to the children, suggested that in scary times they “look for the helper;” because there are always helpers, something borne out by both scriptural references and secular reality.

San Francisco Interfaith Council Executive Director Michael Pappas spoke of the “solidarity and prayers of people of many faiths” (locally including 800 San Francisco congregations) that would ultimately overcome darkness.

And for the prayer, another Calvary pastor, Victor Floyd, sang the “Kyrie Eleison” (Lord have mercy) familiar to Catholic, Protestant, Greek Orthodox and other Christians — in Urdu, the language of Fatih Ates’ native Turkey.

Finally, there was a moving moment of light. California Assemblymember David Chiu, a member of Calvary who went from social justice work into politics a few years ago, explained the Presbyterian custom of “passing the peace,” greeting friends and strangers. candlesChiu spoke of San Francisco as being a city on a hill, a city of light, and everyone, having been given candles on entering the sanctuary, raised their lighted candles in a room in which the light until that moment was dim.

The act of raising a candle into the gloom, lifting some light of hope, making one small statement against injustice may be primarily symbolic, but it’s a start.

And proof that light can drive out darkness.

 

The invisible women of Afghanistan

Afghan women wearing burqas when going outside...

Afghan women wearing burqas when going outside in northern Afghanistan. Deutsch: Afghanische Burkaträgerinnen Français : Deux femmes afghanes portant la burqa Suomi: Afganistanilaisia naisia pukeutuneina burkaan 日本語: アフガニスタンの女性ブルカ (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

 

 

See if you can get your mind around this:

Afghanistan’s parliament has rejected a law which would have offered a few tiny protections for women and girls against violence because –

 

One, “It is wrong that a woman and man cannot marry off their child until she is 16,” according to Obaidullah Barekzai, a member from southeast Uruzgan province. Female literacy rates are at rock bottom in Uruzgan.

 

And two, well women’s shelters are just “houses of prostitution and immorality” – this from Justice Minister Habibullah Ghaleb last year

 

Plus: those laws about punishing someone just for beating his wife are definitely un-Islamic – this from all those mullahs who know exactly what Allah has in mind.

 

The New York Times story on the above was illustrated by a photo of a man in a Kabul store, dressed in a tee shirt and colorful scarf, standing amidst racks of pale blue burqas. Burqas, shapeless head-to-toe coverings, also come in black, but perhaps that’s another store; they are requisite outdoor-wear for women in many areas. If you look closely at the Times photo there is an actual woman in the background; you can tell because her hands are visible. An even closer look reveals what seems to be another woman in another burqa, though it’s hard to tell; the idea of the burqa is to render the woman inside invisible.

Many of us think that the U.S., given the history of countries trying to intervene in Afghanistan, should never have tried to intervene in Afghanistan. Probably many more of us simply want the U.S. to get out.

 

But if you’re a woman in the U.S., holding the women of Afghanistan in your heart, it’s hard not to weep for them all – and to count your blessings.

 

 

 

 

 

Afghanistan suggestion: Make tea, not war

Greg Mortenson in Afghanistan 3500ppx

Image via Wikipedia

A glimmer of good news from the endless bad-news war in Afghanistan: the people doing the fighting are in touch with someone who was winning, a long time before they started fighting.

In the frantic last hours of Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal’s command in Afghanistan, when the world wondered what was racing through the general’s mind, he reached out to an unlikely corner of his life: the author of the book “Three Cups of Tea,” Greg Mortenson.

“Will move through this and if I’m not involved in the years ahead, will take tremendous comfort in knowing people like you are helping Afghans build a future,” General McChrystal wrote to Mr. Mortenson in an e-mail message, as he traveled from Kabul to Washington. The note landed in Mr. Mortenson’s inbox shortly after 1 a.m. Eastern time on June 23. Nine hours later, the general walked into the Oval Office to be fired by President Obama.

Mortenson, of course, hasn’t been winning any battles. What he has been winning are the trust, and occasionally the hearts, of Pakistani tribal leaders in a long-running effort to educate their daughters.

The story of this school-building crusade, which came about as a thank-you gesture after Mortenson received help during a mountaineering mishap, is told in Three Cups of Tea. The story of the book — it went nowhere when published with a warrior subtitle, then caught on like wildfire when Mortenson won a mini-battle to bring it out as his originally intended plea for peace — is told in the talks he has been making around the country for several years.

To hear Mortenson talk, as this writer has happily done several times, is to become a believer in hope. Most of us have been coming home saying, “Gee, could we spend a few billions less on platoons and give a few billions to Greg Mortenson’s schools instead?” Mortenson, a giant of a man who clearly has no personal agenda, is not a motivational speaker. But his tale is compelling.

The title of that first book comes from his discovery, early on, that the first step in building anything — school, relationship, whatever — is to sit down over three cups of tea. Hundreds of cups of tea and a few near-death episodes later, he has quietly managed to forge relationships with isolated tribes and build schools for girls who will grow up — perhaps — to think there’s something good about America. Some schools have been destroyed (and occasionally rebuilt), some relationships have gone sour, but the idea that something good can be developed between the U.S. and that wild land without bombs and guns — or despite guns and bombs — is heart-warming. And more than a little surprising.

Mr. Mortenson, 52, thinks there is no military solution in Afghanistan — he says the education of girls is the real long-term fix — so he has been startled by the Defense Department’s embrace.

“I never, ever expected it,” Mr. Mortenson, a former Army medic, said in a telephone interview last week from Florida, where he had paused between military briefings, book talks for a sequel, “Stones into Schools,” and fund-raising appearances for his institute. (The Central Asia Institute, a nonprofit foundation dedicated to community-based education, primarily for girls, in Pakistan and Afghanistan.)

But thanks to a few military wives, who read Three Cups of Tea and then insisted their husbands read it too, a connection was made between the warriors and the peacemaker. It is an unlikely, and in many ways perilous, partnership, but if you’ve read the book or heard the talk you probably feel a glimmer of optimism.

The military’s Mortenson-method efforts  in Afghanistan thus far are outlined in Elisabeth Bumiller’s July 18 New York Times report. His own job will now involve convincing the elders that he hasn’t become a tool of the military. It’s a strange world out there. But it seems somehow more hopeful.

Unlikely Tutor Giving Military Afghan Advice – NYTimes.com.

CIA casualties highlight endless wars

While we were watching bejeweled balls drop in Times Square, or fireworks over San Francisco Bay, pyrotechnics of a different sort were going on as usual around the globe, some of them more or less our fault — because people don’t like us or our government policies or our religious persuasions — some of them happening in our name. The news-making American casualties were not military personnel this time, but civilians in the employ of the Central Intelligence Agency.

The report of this attack sums up where we are, in the last few words of the first paragraph: America’s far-flung wars.

The deaths of seven Central Intelligence Agency operatives at a remote base in the mountains of Afghanistan are a pointed example of the civilian spy agency’s transformation in recent years into a paramilitary organization at the vanguard of America’s far-flung wars.

Is it possible we are fighting too many wars, too far-flung?

If you Google around a while, you can discover (for instance, on a college librarian’s eponymous and aptly named site, topsy.org) that many of the lists of exactly where and with whom we are fighting battles have been removed — but that there are a lot of them out there. We have “overseas operating sites,” which our thankfully now-former president sought to have “optimally positioned to respond to potential 21st century military threats” all over the globe.

PBS NewsHour on New Year’s Day featured one segment in which Georgetown University professor Christine Fair attempted to articulate the various factors involved in current impossible wars going on in the mountainous regions of Pakistan, Afghanistan etc. The Pakistan Taliban, she explained, are actually “a network of networks;” the insurgents include Afghan soldiers, or perhaps non-soldiers dressed in some of the uniforms acquired by stealing a truckload of them, which happened not long ago. PBS’ Ray Suarez then asked if there were any way of stopping this chaos. “I don’t think so,” was the answer.

Hello? Could we think about our foreign policy a while?

Even without easily accessible lists (it is somewhat comforting to know that amateurs can’t Google up strategic maps of these overseas operating sites,) everybody knows we have personnel, uniformed and otherwise scattered around from Germany to South Korea to Thailand to Honduras to wherever. We don’t know how many of them are fighting little wildfire battles, either in person or through U.S.-trained surrogates. In the recent C.I.A. tragedy, the survivors can be forgiven for anger and grief, but some of the response is still unsettling:

There was an air of defiance among intelligence officials on the day after the attack, and some spoke of their fallen comrades using military language.

“There is no pullout,” the American intelligence official said. “There is no withdrawal or anything like that planned.”

Is anybody, anywhere, considering the fact that we can’t keep fighting everybody everywhere, forever? The pundits (reinforced by Defense Department spokespeople) like to say that if we were to pull out — of Iraq, Afghanistan, Uganda, pick your piece of the globe where we’re actively or just-behind-the-lines at war — there would be chaos. But there’s already chaos.

What if we started taking a few of those trillions currently funding endless wars and diverting them into building schools, hospitals, community centers, friends? After the chaos, could we then emerge with more friends and fewer aspiring-martyr enemies?

Maybe not. But it would be nice, just once, in all the interminable debates about terrorists and security and rooting out the bad guys, to hear someone suggest changing course, waging peace. For now, we seem mired in countless un-winnable wars. It would be heartening to think we could get off the Through the Looking Glass course outlined by former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld in 2002 and quoted by columnist David Sirota today:

As we know, there are known knowns. There are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns. That is to say, we know there’re some things we do not know. But there’re also unknowns unknowns; the ones we don’t know we don’t know.

We know how many wars we are fighting. We know we’re not winning many of them. We know that peace on earth isn’t getting any closer these days.

C.I.A. Takes On Bigger and Riskier Role on Front Lines – NYTimes.com.

The Peace prize & the 20th Century

While applauding Mr. Obama, I’m among those who wish the Nobel folks had waited. I do hope peace might actually, some day, happen in the world, but given last century’s record, things are chancy at best.

My father, born in 1897, used to talk a lot about world peace. His father, born just after the end of the Civil War, lost two of his five sons to World War I, but he took comfort in the certainty that peace would abound from then on. He died in the mid-1930s, presumably not looking very closely at Germany.

My father was an eternal, though not unrealistic, optimist. The afternoon we learned that Pearl Harbor had been bombed we gathered around the Philco radio to listen to Mr. Roosevelt, and my father talked about what a terrible thing war was. But for a few years we had that one, the last ‘good’ war. There was optimism after it ended but not much peace, because we plunged right into the Cold War.

In 1953 my father — Earl Moreland was his name, he was a good guy — was president of the Virginia United Nations Association and brought Eleanor Roosevelt to Richmond to speak on — world peace. It was a plum for my fresh-out-of-college first PR job and a memorable time for me, since I got to pick up Mrs. Roosevelt at the quonset hut that passed for Richmond’s airport at the time and watch that singular lady in action. She was eloquent and reservedly hopeful. For a while in the 1950s peace seemed dimly possible, if you could look beyond SEATO and the Geneva Accords and a few issues with Communism, and ignore (as many of us did) the plight of the Palestinians.

Then came Vietnam. If that war seemed endless, which it was, at least after we made our ungraceful exit there was another tiny hope that somehow there might be a little peace… as long as you ignored the North/South Vietnam problems and weren’t looking at Israel and Palestine.

My father was a big fan of Anwar Sadat. When Jimmy Carter managed that little sit-down with Mr. Sadat and Menachem Begin at Camp David, I was visiting my father at his home a hundred or so miles south. This time we hunkered in front of the little living room TV set, and I remember my father saying “By George! I think we could see peace over there one day.” Well, we did hope. Of course, by then it was getting close to time to start looking at Afghanistan, a country many Americans (certainly including this one) thought of more as a storybook land than a real place where one bunch of people have been fighting with another bunch of people since time immemorial.

The rest is (more recent) history. It will be evident that this space is not the History Channel, but more precisely one woman’s view of the 20th century and the peace in our time that didn’t exactly happen. American Nobel peace laureates Teddy Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, George Marshall, Martin Luther King Jr., Henry Kissinger — MLK, definitely a peacemaking sort but Henry Kissinger? — and Jimmy Carter didn’t formulate much 20th century peaceable wisdom for their 21st century follower.

Barack Obama is a believer, in hope, and peace, and possibilities. I wish him well.