Three Faiths in One

The following is in response to a post from my friend Tony.  We were talking about Zorba (the film, which he had just seen for the first time).  We have discussed the natures of Christianity and Islam.  My latest post to him reflects my current thinking.
Hi Tony

By the end of the first century there were already over a dozen versions of Christianity. Most of the differences were on two issues – the nature of Jesus (divine and human, only divine, only human, etc.) and the relationship with the OT in the new faith (all of it, selected parts of it, none of it, etc.). Gnosticism was an important element in bringing Christianity into the pagan world as were the mystery religions. Syncretism (adapting other faith systems, customs and symbols into Christianity) goes on to the present day. The Gnostic influence is the basis for Christianity’s dark view of this world, such as original sin. Trinity is a concept developed over two centuries following the establishment of the NT canon. I have read some of that literature including Augustine’s long essay on the subject. It is still a doctrine that leaves some theologians discomforted. I understand it as a way of seeing the theological problem of God’s connection to this world – Father is transcendent and distant; son is immanent and close; Holy Spirit is the connector. This same set of ideas is present in both Judaism and Islam, along with the problems and issues connected (for example theodicy, the problem of divine justice). Decades of study and experience have shown me that the three Faith’s are really three faces of one faith. All the conflicts among them and within them are not really about faith no matter how much faith is used to promote and justify them. The only reason, I believe, that this does not happen for Jews is we are so few in numbers. Our own sources say there is nothing intrinsic about us that is better than other peoples. God chose us to play a role in human history and much of the time we might wish, as Tevye says in “Fiddler,”. “Can’t you choose someone else for a change?” I am very proud to be a Jew because of all the good we have done in our assigned role (which I think includes the creation of both Christianity and Islam), but that does not mean I feel superior. It just means I have burdens of responsibility to teach and promote a way for people to be good to each other. My political and social views come from that place.

On vacation my mind seems to open up. I think I may post this message on my blog…

Another Reason to Support The Iran Agreement

The biggest objection to the Iran Agreement on nuclear weapons is that Iran cannot be trusted to abide by it. I disagree. My training and experience in negotiations and in conflict resolution have shown me that anyone can be trusted to do what they believe benefits them. This is true whether among individuals or on any size group including nations. Look at this agreement with that in mind.

The true measure of the Iran agreement is the extent to which everyone gets what they need or see themselves as needing. (As the Stones sing it, “you can’t always get what you want,but if you try sometimes you might find you get what you need.”). We need for Iran not to get the bomb which is also what the other five on our side plus IAEA need. what Iran needs is an end to the sanctions. The question raised by critics of the agreement ask whether Iran can be trusted to comply with the agreement. Which does Iran need more, a strong economy or a nuclear arsenal?

Here is a thought that came to me which I have not seen in any source. Iran needs for their economy to work more than they need nukes. They seek regional hegemony. No power can have that without a healthy economy. Can anyone think of any great power in human history that did not have a strong economy? Iran cannot afford continued sanctions. If the agreement falls through because of American politics the USA will lose credibility with our five co- negotiators and also the sanctions will collapse because four of the other five need Iranian oil. The fifth, Russia, will have been handed a bigger relationship with Iran which they have sought for a very long time and which they are now actively pursuing.

Furthermore the Islamic rulers of Iran are very much aware that they came to power through the overthrow of the Shah which, before 1979, no one thought could happen. The immense Green movement that opposed Ahmadinejad’s re-election is still functioning and still actively opposing the regime. It is secularist and committed to non-violence and is exactly the kind of movement that has a history of bringing down tyrannies. The regime knows that the weak economy due to the sanctions is a basis for widespread opposition, too big for them to suppress. The regime needs to fix the economy more than it needs nukes.

The agreement gives everyone what they need, if not everything they want. That is how negotiations work.

Still So Far to Go

i am visiting New York where I am staying with my son, Josh, at his apartment in Harlem.  This morning I went across the street to get a coffee at Starbuck’s.  Just ahead of me in line was a lesbian couple, one African-American and the other Latina-American clearly behaving like a couple.  Let’s parse this.

1 – My son has an apartment in Harlem.

2 – There is a Starbuck’s across the street.

3 – an openly lesbian inter-racial couple

Not so long ago none of this would have been possible.  Harlem was a largely Jewish area of the City a long time ago, but the Harlem of my lifetime used to be a racial enclave known for urban blight and violence.  A business like Starbuck’s would never have opened here.  Until not so long ago most GLBT people stayed in the closet and certainly were not openly affectionate in public.  Inter- racial couples were not often seen, especially homosexual couples.

My first thought was that all the activism of the past sixty years has achieved a great deal.  I felt everything I have done has borne fruit.  The harassment and abuse I have suffered, especially speaking out from the pulpit, has been worth it.

Then I looked at the morning paper and realized how far there is to go.  A U. Of Cincinatti campus cop has been indicted for murdering a motorist stopped for a missing license plate.  A black woman died after three days in jail in a Texas county with a history of racist violence.  Her offense was failing to use a turn signal when she changed lanes.  True, she did Not behave wisely when stopped but a policeman is supposed to be a professional and should have been trained in calming people down in tense situations.  I have not only observed policemen in New York and in my small town of Hendersonville doing just that, but I was trained by the NYPD to intervene when observing bad behavior on a policeman’s part (I am using a gender-specific term but am referring to anyone of either gender wearing a badge and I should not have to say that).  Racism is still a big problem despite the great progress and despite the denials of conservatives.  There is still much to do, which is why I am active with Moral Mondays.  

I have been active in environmental concerns for almost half a century and now see legislatures rolling back essential regulations to please their corporate sponsors, the ones that pay for their electoral campaigns.  The Senate has put that ignorant clodhoppers, James Inhofe, in charge of climate change issues.  Despite a great deal of progress in that area there is not only a long way to go, but it is necessary to oppose those who seek to go backwards.

Nuclear proliferation has largely ended with no new members of the nuclear cllub except North Korea for some time.  Throughout the history of nuclear arms there have been negotiations towards arms limitations treaties.  Many believe Iran is working towards becoming a member of that club and there has been concern about this for about a quarter century.  Now an agreement has been negotiated which will deny Iran the possibility of going nuclear and this entirecdeal is endangered by Congress.  I have read and heard the objections and none of them convince me of anything except political grandstanding.  That goes double for Israel’s demagogic Prime Minister Bibi Netsnyaho who has been beating that drum since 1992.

A couple of weeks ago I joined the Moral Monday rally in Winston-Salem protesting our state’s voter suppression law.  I marched for voting rights in Selma.  Why do I still have to march for voting rights?  

I could go on and on about what still needs doing.  I would love to enjoy a retirement of study, friendship, and enjoyment of my life.  I intend to do those things, but I cannot spend all of my time and energy on those things.  There is still too much that needs to be done to fix the world.

As Rabbi Tarfon said, “you are not required to complete the task, but neither are you free to desist from the work.”

Walking in Selma Then and Now

“I felt as if my legs were praying.”  This is what Dr. King’s friend Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said about his experience at the 1965 march in Selma.  I know just what he meant.  This was not just a political event but a spiritual one, a pilgrimage.  The same was true this year when I returned to Selma to join the 50th anniversary march there.

There were important differences this time.  Back then marchers were faced with open hostility and death threats.  This time there was no fear and no confrontations.  Back then we knew what we were doing was important, but we could not know that Selma would become a symbol.  We were demonstrating our support for the right to vote.  That right is a constitutional right and the basis for all our other civil rights.  Back then this right was being denied to people on the basis of race.  The government of Alabama held onto power through intimidation, unfair legal practices, violence, and murder.  The Selma march succeeded in pushing the President and Congress to pass the Voters’ Rights Act of 1965 (VRA).

Today the vote is being suppressed in a more refined manner and race is not the target, or not the only target.  In 2013 the Supreme Court decided to gut the VRA taking out the section that had the teeth.  Enforcement of the act was ended because, as Chief Justice Roberts wrote in his decision that the law is “based on 40-year old facts having no logical relationship to the present day.”  I wonder how it is possible that the Chief Justice of our Supreme Court could be so clueless.  Immediately, upon publication of that decision, several states, including North Carolina, proceeded to pass new laws restricting voting rights.  No one affected by these laws is fooled about the partisan nature of these laws.  In our state alone over 300,000 people are without the necessary documents and for them access to the polls is made difficult and sometimes impossible.  As one speaker noted, Jim Crow is now James Crow, Esq.  It’s the same thing dressed up in better clothes.

The event I attended in Selma on March 8 was not nostalgic.  It was not just about an accomplishment of a past generation.  It was an affirmation that, as much progress as there has been, there is still a very long way to go.  Even the abuses of legal process and violence against African-Americans are still with us and are currently revealed as being systemic.  There is another town, which has become a symbol of racial injustice.  As I write this the outrageous miscarriages of justice in Ferguson, Missouri are being revealed along with similar practices in many cities all over our nation.

The first event of the day for me was a church service.  I saw there a teenager wearing a t-shirt that said, “UNARMED CIVILIAN.”  The family of Michael Brown was seated near the pulpit.  The preachers addressed the voting issue but also the police violence issue.  This church holds to a very traditional form of Christianity.  In fact all the speakers I heard were ministers, mostly Baptist.  Even Al Sharpton spoke as a preacher rather than a news commentator.  The civil rights movement was always about applying the spirit to life.

The people gathered in Selma were overwhelmingly people of faith.  I saw a lot of clerical collars.  Buses for church groups were parked everywhere.  The spirit was joyful and loving.  About 100,000 people marched in a town of 20,000.  No one, not even the organizers, expected such a turnout.  It took hours to walk the few blocks from Browns Chapel to the other side of the Edmund Pettus Bridge because of the sheer number of people.  Yet I saw no sign of anger or frustration in anyone.

The President spoke the day before along with other political figures, none of whom represented the Republican Party.  What can we conclude from that absence?  Back in 1965 it was Congressional Republicans who pushed the VRA vote over the top.  Today none that I know of were present to say that they too endorse the right to vote and oppose racial injustice.  I have to ask whether the party leadership understands that many of their members support the right to vote and certainly oppose racial injustice.  I cannot believe that this is not so.

The march this year was a portrait of America.  There were people of all ages, people of many faiths, people representing communities in every part of the country.  I even saw a group of Alabama State Troopers, led by an officer, marching with us.  This was our country at its best.  This was faith at its best.  I think we “foot soldiers” were acting as true patriots calling for the realization of the ideals on which this nation is founded.

I was there in 1965 as a young college student.  I was there this year as I approach my 70th birthday.  In the years between I have worked for justice, and for peace.  Much has been accomplished in those years, but there is still a long way to go.  As we sang on the march,

“Ain’t gonna let nobody turn me around.  Gonna keep on a-walkin’, gonna keep on a-talking, marchin’ down to freedom land.”

MLK’s World House speech

Many people remember Dr. King as an idealist, but he was very grounded. The film “Selma” (which I highly recommend) begins with MLK dressing for his Nobel prize ceremony. Right there, at the beginning of the movie we see our hero as very human. “Selma” is an amazing film because Hollywood films about the Movement are usually either sentimentalize or have a white hero. “Selma” keeps it real.

MLK’s speech on receiving the Nobel prize was one of his best, known as the World House speech. Here is a link to the text of that speech and a recording of a bit of it. I yield the rest of my time to Dr. King.

Morality and American Foreign Policy

Today I received an email with a column that justifies an amoral approach to American foreign policy.  You can read it at

Here is my response..

In order to support our nation’s foreign policy, as it is today, one must support an amoral approach.  Kaplan admits as much and then defends it.  We should have a problem with that.
While I am quite sure that this country was not founded as a Christian nation or that the Constitution is based on the Bible, it was founded on a moral vision.  This is sometimes expressed in the metaphor of a city upon a hill.  This expression was coined in a famous sermon by John Winthrop in 1630 and is still used by politicians today.  This phrase was derived from the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5:14 which says, “You are a light of the world.  A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden.”)  This is the basis of the doctrine of exceptionalism which has become a cornerstone of the political right.  I call it hypocrisy.  You cannot have a city upon a hill based on amoral principles unless you believe in a doctrine that says we are exceptional in the sense that we can do whatever we want with impunity.  This is as unbiblical as you can get.  The Bible is consistently hostile to empires and great cities on moral grounds.  I know some will deny it but the USA is the current incarnation of a series that started in Sumeria 5000 years ago, each of which saw itself as divinely ordained in one way or another.
Judaism defines the Jewish people as chosen by God, but that is not about being chosen for a lighter moral burden but a heavier one.  I recommend the Biblical book of Amos to see this laid out in the 8th century BCE.  The book begins with a moral evaluation of Israel’s neighboring nations followed by a moral evaluation of Israel and Judea which basically says that we are held just as accountable for our actions as any other nation.  This theme culminates at Amos 9:7 which equates us with Ethiopia.  At that time Ethiopia would have been the most distant and exotic of peoples.  Every nation must set a high standard of conduct for itself without favoratism or exception.  Just to be clear Amos is explicit about part of that being social justice.  For that read Amos chapter 5 which includes the verse Martin Luther King is famous for citing – “Let justice flow down like waters and righteousness as an ever-flowing stream.”  I could cite plenty more along these lines.  Such verses are the Bible I was taught from childhood and which are still the basis of my vision.
When I hear someone saying this nation should be governed by Biblical law and then claims exceptionalism, I see that as nothing but hypocrisy.  You cannot have both.  Kaplan is among those who say we cannot be guided by morality in our foreign policy so he seems not to be a hypocrite.  He has chosen one side of this coin.  He is far more honest and honorable than those who claim both faith and exceptionalism.  I would also call this pairing of values idolatry because it elevates a nation to divine status.
Lincoln was asked whether God is on our side.  His response was that we should worry about being on God’s side.  To me that says it all. 
From the genocide of the 500 native American nations to the Senate report on torture we have failed to be that city upon a hill.    I want my country’s flag to symbolize the highest standards of human and national conduct.  It is up to us to work to bring our nation back to that vision.  This is what I have been trying to do since I was fourteen years old.

Thanksgiving Prayer

Happy Thanksgiving

William S Burroughs is about as American as you can get.  He was the grandson of the inventor of the adding machine (yes, that Burroughs) and an heir to that family’s fortune.  He turned from a life of corporate leadership to one of rebellion and creativity. He did live overseas when he was young (London, Paris, Tangier, Mexico City) but spent most of his years here and chose Lawrence, Kansas as his home in old age.  He adored guns and even used them in his artwork.  Also he shot his wife in the head drunkenly playing William Tell.  Fortunately for him this was in Mexico City so a good lawyer got him off.  He was a humorist of the darkest kind.  He was a Beatnik who looked like an accountant.
I’ve read almost everything he wrote and published and have recordings of his readings.  Some of you have told me I am too altruistic and see the world through rose-colored glasses.  I do have such a side which is how I have maintained a commitment to what in Judaism we call Tiqqun Olam (Fixing The World).  I also have a dark side having seen something of the evils I want to fix. I am in tune with dark satirists like Jonathan Swift, Kurt Vonnegut, Christipher Buckley, Lenny Bruce, and, of course, Mark Twain.  I am a child of the sixties but my mind and heart are much closer to the Beats than the Hippies.  In a sense I am the complete Tao being both the light Yang and the dark Yin each with a speck of the other color within.
                                                                                         Inline image 1

Love of country, like love of a person, should not be conditional.  As Shakespeare put it, “Love is not love when it alteration finds.” (Sonnet 116).  Or as Elie Wiesel put it,

“The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference. The opposite of art is not ugliness, it’s indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it’s indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, it’s indifference.”

It is safe to say Burroughs was not indifferent and neither am I.  Flag-waving is not necessarily love, especially if it tolerates no criticism or recognition of error or flaw in our nation.  I dislike much about the TEA Party but recognize and applaud the lack of indifference there.  Protest is as American as apple pie and motherhood.  Picket signs in Ferguson MO say, “This is what democracy looks like.”  I think protest of injustice is what love of country looks like.  The worst thing about American politics is not in those who stand up for their vision of America but in those who do not.  The worse harbinger of the future of America is not any political philosophy or party but that half of eligible voters do not vote.

William Burroughs’ “Thanksgiving Prayer” is satire.  Being satire some will laugh out loud and others will cringe or perhaps become angry.  If you know in advance that making fun of national symbols and patriotic rhetoric is offensive you probably should not open the link below.  If you can laugh at yourself, if you love our country despite its shortcomings, then, by all means, open it.

Happy Thanksgiving


If you think this country has the best health care system in the world, you’ve been played. In reality we have the worst system if you judge it by its effectiveness and efficiency. Ours is undoubtedly the most technologically advanced, but it is also the most expensive and the one under which millions of Americans have no insured access to health care. It is the only one that allows people to go bankrupt over medical expenses. It is the one that says, “Let those without coverage use emergency rooms and then force those with coverage to pay more to meet the expense.”

If you look at our national health vital statistics compared with those of other developed nations, you will find we are at the bottom of that list in terms of such basics as longevity, infant mortality, and much more. Forbes Magazine reported this last June. Our standing in the world is 37th among 190 nations according to the World Health Organization. That puts us just below Costa Rica and just above Slovenia.

We are the only developed country in the world without national health care. The national health care was created by that flaming liberal Otto von Bismarck back in 1873. He was absurdly accused by his political opponents of being a socialist. In fact he was in fact a practitioner of realpolitik, which means he did not use ideology or even ethics, but relied on practicality.

Our nation’s refusal to adopt national health care is based on an almost mystical belief that market forces and the profit motive are always the most efficient and fair system. There are a lot of reasons why that is not true for everything. At the top of that list is human nature. Where profit is the only motivator one sets oneself against everyone and everything else no matter the cost to the public interest. In the case of medicine add the economic principle of elasticity of price. That means that the market will set prices at the highest level that the public will spend on a good or service. It does not take a genius to figure out that people will pay anything they can for their health benefits.

Despite, not because of ACA, our system is getting even worse. My story tells you how. As I write this my primary care physician, who has treated me through very serious illnesses for the past nine years, was declared “out of network” by AARP’s United Health Care. They have a new policy under which they will cover only hospital-affiliated physicians. I do not understand how, but it seems most likely that this is a way for UHC to increase its bottom line and AARP is going along with it. Reportedly (Consumer Reports On Health newsletter) thousands of Americans are affected.

This is the insurance program advertised as the only one approved by AARP. In fact it seems that United Health Care and AARP are joined at the hip. This program continues to advertise in print and on TV that there are no networks and any physician who accepts Medicare patients is covered. These are obvious lies.
Ever since I was first informed that UHC had assigned me a new physician I have been trying to find a way to continue being covered by the physician who actually knows my case. It took me several weeks to find anyone at either AARP or UHC to discuss my case. Until then I was talking to people who were obviously reading from a script and had no authority to do anything and supposedly no phone number for me to call someone with some authority.

By this time I do have a couple of numbers to call, but call backs take a very long time.
Meanwhile the deadline has passed, my physician is no longer covered, they regard a doctor I do not know at all who is affiliated with a hospital I would never willingly go to is now my physician according to them, and, if I need hospital care, it will not be covered because my physician is not hospital affiliated.

This is the best system in the world? I don’t think so.

Three Panels in August

Before listing the three panels I will shortly participate in, I would like to remind everyone who lives here in western North Carolina that this Monday afternoon at 5 PM Mountain Moral Monday 2 in Pack Square. If you are in Hendersonville, car-pooling is happening at GB Shoes at 3:30-4:00.

I seem to have become a specialist in panel programs. I am involved in three of these in the coming weeks.

Sunday, August 10 – An interfaith panel on the environment is taking place at First Congregational Church at the Laurel Park end of Fifth Avenue.
This discussion will be moderated by Rabbi Phil Bentley, and feature panelists
Byron Ballard on Wicca, Rabbi Phil Cohen on Judaism,
Hakim Ilyas Al-Kashani on Islam and John Snodgrass on Christianity.
Sunday, August 10th at 3pm
First Congregational Church
(1735 5th Ave West, Hendersonville)

Sunday, August 17 – Agudas Israel’s Sunday Seminar series will be about Vatican II, which took place half a century ago and revolutionized the Catholic Church and started a process of reconciliation with the Jewish people. Dorice Narins will speak about Pope John XXIII and I will speak about the role of Abraham Joshua Heschel. This will take place at the synagogue at 1 PM.

Wednesday, August 30 – I have been invited to participate in a panel program on Jewish traditions concerning the dying person. The panel will include a lawyer and a medical ethicist as well as me. My presentation will be based on a published paper.
This program will be at 5:30 PM at 417 Biltmore Avenue (2 Doctors Park on the St. Joseph Hospital campus), Suite E

No Winning Side

When considering a conflict most people find it is easier to pick a side than to really consider the causes of the conflict; the role of each side in the conflict; and the harm caused by each side to the other. It comes down to a sports metaphor – my team against some other team. This is true of politics; it is true of rights issues; and it is especially true of wars.
No one, except profiteers, wins war. Every war involves bloodshed, destruction, displacement, and, of course, lies. When one side defeats the other that usually leads to the start of a path to the next war. The only way to avoid that is to promote reconciliation between the combatants and to remove causes for a new war.
The best-known example is how the Allies won WWI and then, at Versailles, created the conditions that led to the next war only 20 years later. The Allies also won WWII but the US had the wisdom to create the Marshall Plan and the vision to organize the UN. But then the US and USSR created the next war, the so-called Cold War, which engendered over four decades of proxy wars all over the globe before it burned itself out.
In the case of Israel-Gaza, what I see is both sides starting and pursuing war because of political considerations to the great harm of everyone involved. I love Israel but the demonization of Hamas has made for really bad policies by Israel. Hamas started as a faith-based social services provider (Israel even helped out at its founding) that then pursued a violent policy on the basis of demonizing Israel.
I have long criticized and worked against human rights violations by Israel against Palestinians, but I have not hesitated to criticize Palestinians, some times to their faces, for their human rights violations, often against their own people.
No one is blameless here and both sides are victimized by the other.
What is the path to peace? The only way I can see is for leaders to arise on both sides to say “enough,” and to acknowledge that their side has wrontged the other side. For me the example is South Africa where Mandela and de Klerk worked together to end Apartheid and to bring reconciliation through the Truth and Reconciliations hearings. Neither wars nor diplomacy will resolve this conflict. It must happen at the grassroots level. Both the Palestinians and Israel need the kind of charismatic leaders that will work to truly end the conflict. Those leaders might or might not be government leaders. Gandhi, King, and Mandela achieved great things by making it possible for governments to do what was right. Of these Mandela only came to political power.
When you read news or opinion about the current war, or any war, remember always that there are two sides and both are losing.