Monday, February 28, 2011

February 2011: The Whether of our Lives

Pictured here is Vandana Shiva, ecofeminist author and activist, sharing with a large audience last week at Portland Community College (PCC). It is rare that we have a speaker who challenges us to reflect on the whether of our lives: choices confronting humanity (and each of us) at this time in our evolution. She does so by her words and also by her personal example.

Whether or not she would be able to share with my students and others at PCC would be at the whim of the weather! Several days before a severe winter storm was forecast to include up to 4 inches of snow (10 centimeters) with temperatures down to 19 degrees Fahrenheit (-3 C.). The day she spoke the temperatures were down and snow had fallen – and most schools were closed. PCC opened two hours late at 10am (precisely the time she was scheduled to begin)! A second talk later in the day was set for 3-4pm (and yes, more snow closed down facilities by 4pm)! It seems that providence does provide us with learning opportunities. Whether or not we take advantage of them will always remain our choice.

Vandana Shiva`s message can be summarized as follows: Globalization today is a new form of colonialism in which multinational corporations (like Monsanto) seek to control our lives through redefining the Commons as private property from which profits should be enjoyed by the few even at the expense of the many. The Commons includes forests, plants, animals, and water that is produced by nature and now is being patented for production in the name of progress. Without our consent we become test subjects in experiments ranging from genetically modified foods to consumers (of fossil fuels, cosmetics, faster cars, and all manner of unnecessary things) which adversely impact everything from traditional weather patterns, to the increasing gap between rich and poor, to our personal health.

Due to conversations we had had prior to her speaking (as I was moderator for the morning event), Vandana Shiva thoughtfully linked her message to the teachings of Gandhi. Just as Gandhi, in his time, had proposed the spinning wheel in response to global textile production that was disempowering the rural poor of India, now she seeks to develop seed banks in response to the corporate patenting of life which seeks to disempower us all today even as it threatens the precious biodiversity of the planet. It is in this context that she renews Gandhi`s call for Swaraj (self-rule) and Swadeshi (local self-sufficiency) by means of Satyagraha (holding firm to the truth as we see it) and Sarvodaya (constructive programs with the good of all in mind).

As I listened to her, I was reminded of similar talks I was giving throughout the six months of my Fulbright grant in India last year. I was also reminded of how easy it has been to fall back into the comfortable lifestyle patterns my family and I had prior to that experience. Of course there are always degrees of hypocrisy. No one, even Gandhi, has ever remained perfectly in tune with their values. That said, whether or not we seek to reduce the gap between what we believe and how we live (and so reduce the degree of our hypocracies) is left to each of us to decide. Certainly it is easier to point out the shortcomings of others, as well as of entire societies – but our criticisms carry little weight if we exclude ourselves from them. I thank Vandana Shiva for sparking in me a renewed desire to commit to more radical lifestyle changes. Through my communications here, perhaps others may consider whether to make new choices for themselves…

The fires of change continue to burn off past fears throughout much of the Arab world, with the winds of freedom having blown out the autocratic rule of Mubarak in Egypt on February 11th. Now people are demanding change in Libya, Yemen, Bahrain, and elsewhere – with the cost in lives seeming to increase with each falling dictatorship. How far the dominos will fall, we shall see. The current wave of freedom (self-rule, swaraj) may soon seem to recede, but it does wear away at the rocks in our lives in ways that are hard to foresee. Let us proceed forth in the faith that no effort is wasted, no sacrifice is without worth. If we can be true to ourselves as individuals and hold firm to the truth that is ours, over time, others will be impacted and progress will be made towards realizing what Gandhi described as Ram Rajya (the Kingdom of God). Small steps in our lives can cascade into positive global consequences!

On the Sonnleitner home front, changes have also been happening. In a definitely significant first step towards greater self-rule, our youngest daughter Mira has settled into her first living situation free of her parents! Our son Shaman has overcome significant obstacles to personal empowerment by completing his high school diploma! Our nephew, Stephan, departs after over a year of living with us tomorrow when he catches an airplane to Thailand where he will begin several months of solo travel abroad! Our (foster/adopted) daughter Margarita is learning how to cook many traditional Mexican dishes for the first time and even treated us all to a fine meal last night (with an added bonus to me when her one-year old daughter Hanilyn allowed me to pick her up and hold her for the first time)! Last, but not least, the Maldonado Family (close friends to Kristine and I) are all set for improved financial independence as they embark on putting their Mexican cooking skills to work in their own mobile restaurant!

The whether of our lives is clearly affected by weather, socio-political, economic, and other realities that often seem to dictate our choices. Gandhi once said that we may only have as much free will as the deck passenger on an ocean liner. Still, that free will can be used to liberate ourselves and greater empowerment may be achieved. Vandana Shiva`s seed banks help. Overcoming our fears of what others tell us is acceptable can help a lot. Whether our freedom is constrained by the dictators, multinational corporations, social customs that limit our expressions of compassion, or personal fears that may be our most severe barriers – change is possible. We can move about the ocean liner, and even have some say as to the direction it takes. Through the pain that may be inevitable in our lives, at least, let us thoroughly enjoy the opportunities we have to share with one another.

Friday, February 4, 2011

2011 January: Nonviolent Revolutions

The featured photo this month was taken in the Multicultural Center on the Portland Community College Rock Creek Campus where I have taught courses two days each week for 23 years. Inspired by Martin Luther King Jr. (see the mural) and others, these students and I are now coordinating a weekly free speech event series entitled OPEN MIND OPEN MIC (OMOM). In the month just past our events have featured students sharing their experiences relating to how Drug Wars in Mexico have affected their families there, student clubs advertising opportunities for social and educational programming, a birthday celebration of the life of Martin Luther King Jr.. This photo was made just yesterday following an OMOM event focused upon people`s movements now sweeping through the Arab world.

The Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia overthrew an autocratic government which had brutally maintained itself in power there for 23 years. 29 days of surprisingly nonviolent protests, following the self-immolation of a young unemployed man (Mohammad Bouazizi) in December, culminated in a collapse of a government famous for press and internet censorship as well as platitudes of concern for the poor which had resulted in little more than arrests without trial for those who complained. That such a small country of 10 million might inspire others with similar complaints is not very surprising. Now people in Egypt have taken to the streets in earnest, with stirrings of hope also becoming manifest in Algeria, Yemen, Jordan, and even Saudi Arabia. Hope for justice. Hope that empowered people on a mass scale may have better insights into their needs and how to fulfill them than autocratic and paternalistic elites who claim to act on their behalf but are out of touch with their realities.

Gandhi, there should be no doubt, would be pleased. Spontaneous uprisings cannot be expected to exhibit the highly disciplined nonviolence he would most prefer. Yet it is better to act imperfectly than to live in fearful inactivity. The self-esteem central to self-realization (a religious goal) and self-actualization (its secular counterpart) require action. As I commemorated the anniversary of Gandhi`s assassination on January 30th, it warmed my heart to see his spirit resurrected on the streets of Cairo and those who occupied Tahrir Square in spite of the brutality of security forced that had vowed to prevent them from so acting. Since demonstrations in Eqypt began on January 25th, my thoughts have been daily devoted to those who touched our lives as we traveled throughout that country for three weeks last July. At that time, I could sense the atmosphere of severe dissatisfaction as not one person we met had much good to say about the government. Yet fear ruled. When fear is overcome (as is now being revealed) change is inevitable. When true independence and a functional democracy is achieved success is only a matter of time if the activists hold firm. As Gandhi said with regards to the end of British rule in India, it will fall like a ripe fruit.

Gandhi understood that nonviolent revolution has its beginning in our own attitudes. No one can rule us if we rule ourselves. Ultimately the objective is not to simply replace one set of rulers with another – but to rule ourselves (individually and in our communities). This is the Swaraj (self rule) which may bring us glimpses of the Kingdom of God (inspired by the core teachings of each of the world`s religious traditions). For common people like you and I these teachings (seeking Truth, through Nonviolence, with a willingness to Voluntarily Suffer) may be very imperfectly manifest. Still, fulfillment is in the effort. Even what seems like failure in the short term builds toward future success. Sadly, it took years of struggle to affirm the right of those living in the south of Sudan to win decisive victory at the ballot box (opting to create an independent state with over 98% support) this month. Whatever success there may be, it is really not for us to give ourselves credit for what little may be achieved at any point in time. The pride born of egotism is one root of oppressive behaviors! So it is that my greatest praise go to those who risk their lives to build a better world by proclaiming as they do so that GOD IS GREAT (Allah Akbar)!

In our Sonnleitner household, a mostly nonviolent revolution also continues (though it will almost certainly not make international news)! Our youngest daughter (Mira) has moved into an apartment of her own for the first time, with her good friend Naomi (both of whom traveled with my wife and I in India, Italy, and Eqypt last year). Our daughter Sonrisa is progressing well in her university studies, even as our son Shaman is nearly finished with high school requirements and seems more open than ever before to exploring his spirituality. Our daughter Margarita and her family blessed our home with a gathering of about 25 of her (mostly Mexican) friends and in-laws with a party featuring wonderful live music and way too much to eat! Kristine and I gave a talk at Ascension Catholic Church regarding some people who inspired us during our travels last year which raised a little money for some good causes and resulted in an article being written in the conservative Catholic Sentinel newspaper. That the University of Oregon lost a good football game to Auburn (emerging as runner-up to the national championship) was entertaining but of little consequence. Sports definitely can help build both self-esteem and bridges among communities – but it really is not about who wins or loses in the short term, but how we play the game in the present.

Events this month in Tunisia, Sudan, Egypt, and elsewhere highlight the power of nonviolence to build communities of support that may inspire others to more peaceful revolutions. Reflecting back upon the War Resister`s International Conference my wife, son, and I attended in Ahmadabad (India) at this time last year, this months`events were certainly not forecast! Nonviolent activists from all over the world met in the land of Gandhi to give hope to one another, share experiences, and improve their organizational skills. Such people are like farmers for change whose individual and collective efforts reap good crops in unpredictable ways. Those few people at the WRI Conference from Africa may have included only a few from Sudan and Egypt – but those few now find themselves among many calling for greater democracy and respect for human rights.

For those of us currently in safe environments, with adequate food and shelter even when very harsh weather may hit (due to forces unleashed by climate change). It is for us to see ourselves as not separate from the greater suffering of others. It is for us to perform our duties and contribute to the better world of the future which may be largely reaped beyond our lifetimes. Let us support one another as best we can, in spirit, and with such resources as we may share. Father Tom in Tamil Nadu, know that I am thinking of you and your hospice work. My sister Dina, know that your working to republish the entire of the Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi will have a far-reaching impact. My friend Alvaro, know that as you cope well with the loss of family members, know that those who remain will have stronger relationships than before. Zoughbi Zoughbi in occupied Bethlehem, do not doubt that your efforts to mediate conflicts will bear good fruit. Kathy Kelly, our family friend who is awaiting sentencing for protesting against the use of military drones in Pakistan and Afganistan, know that no prison can silence your message of compassion. My friend Mohamed in Egypt, God be with you as we join you in hope that a new dawn may soon dispel the violence being exposed throughout your country.

All of us are capable of transforming ourselves beyond fear to become the nonviolent revolutionaries needed in this world. May we inspire one another to grow in our willingness to sacrifice for the sake of becoming peacemakers.