Sunday, May 8, 2011

April 2011: Reunions and Relationships

This month`s theme is best reflected in this photo featuring a remarkable person who urged me in college to consider teaching as a profession. Dr. George Ball and I were able to spend an hour together during a reunion weekend celebrating the 40th year of my graduation from Whitman College. No one else visited him that weekend, though he is far from forgotten. It is he that is forgetful, remembering few people (including myself) and many people find that disturbing. He now reminds us of our own mortality.

At age 96, Dr. Ball has been retired for 11 years yet still retains an office on the Whitman campus in Walla Walla, Washington state. A Methodist minister with a Yale University Doctor of Divinity Degree, Dr. Ball came to Whitman in 1961 from Hamlin University where he had served as a Chaplain with a passion for teaching Religion. He has been a role model for both critical thinking and compassionate living for thousands of students over the years. Even now, as he is consciously aware that his memory is fading, he approaches death with a grace that is truly inspiring. ``I remember very little`` he observed at least four times during our visit. ``But it is alright.`` ``I have lived a wonderful life. I have no regrets.`` No regrets? ``We only can do the best we are able at the time. Learn from the pain we may cause others as well as ourselves, and continue to do our best.`` Though his mind may be fading, his heart shines as bright as ever before. Even in the twilight of his life he inspires me to be a better person.

We will all die as our bodies break down and expire. Our fear of that too often limits how lovingly we can live. Dr. Ball both fears no death and lives life as fully as he is able. He teaches us still.

Over 70 of my classmates from 1971 attended the Whitman reunion. Most I did not recognize but for the name tags we wore. Most were successful businesspeople, professionals, or scholars from major universities. With no assistance from me, they collected $200,000 as a class gift to Whitman College. The classmate regarded by most as having attained the highest status had to cancel his attendance, having been summoned out of retirement by Barach Obama to Washington D.C. where he is to be appointed U.S. Ambassador to Afganistan. Ryan Crocker, Ambassador to Iraq under G.W. Bush and friend to General David Patreaus (commander of U.S. forces and soon-to-be Director of the CIA), was to have addressed the reunion. Perhaps there will be a future time when we may share. It may be that his critical thinking still lives in the silence required by his service. For my part, I choose to serve my country through a willingness to be much more openly critical of its policies.

When it comes to seeking advice in matters regarding human relationships and how the United States may best interact with the rest of the world, I would choose Dr. Ball over Barach Obama any day, any place, any time.

Another reunion of sorts this month was with those in the Portland metro area with whom I shall a common commitment to War Tax Resistance. I had not seen most of these folks since my return from all of the Fulbright experiences of last year. We met to first organize, then carry out, a protest and educational event for Tax Day (typically April 15th though the 18th this year). In the morning, I joined in by holding signs on a busy downtown Portland bridge that spans the Willamette River. In the evening, I played moderator for an event involving speakers and the showing of the film ``Death not Taxes``. The point of the film was that while death is certain for us all, voluntarily paying taxes for War is not. We can refuse, as I have done using one strategy or another since 1969. In my comments I encouraged everyone to set aside whatever fears we have of personal loss or what others may say – and just do our best to ``sleep well at night``. I know that if my own actions (or lack of action) is too much at odds with my basic values, I do not sleep well. My conscience affects me. Odd as it may seem, war tax resistance for me has nearly no courage associated with it. It is ultimately and quite primarily about sleep!

Relgious activities this month also contributed to sleep. By this I mean more than the occasional nap that sometimes occurs when a sermon goes too long and lacks inspiring content. Conscience was served as our family volunteered again at the homeless shelter hosted at Ascension Church every 7 weeks. Relationships there, both with those being served and other volunteers, strengthen the fabric of life. Easter services, of course, reinforce the messages that we should love others as we love ourselves. That Jesus died for the sins of those who killed him in his time (the Roman Empire and those collaborating with the empire) I have no doubt. That his last words included his willingness to forgive even those who were killing him, continues to inspire others (including Mohandas Gandhi who blessed his assassin by saying ``He Ram! He Ram!`` Forgiveness truly is divine, as it can heal wounds found deep within ourselves.

Becoming more healed ourselves does not mean that we forget our own past or present pain. In fact, our pain can provide a foundation for us to better appreciate and feel the pain of others. Those who are still homeless, for example, here in Portland, in the wake of the March Tsunami in Japan, from the flooding in Pakistan last August, and the earthquake in Haiti (while we were in India over a year ago) – these homeless ARE related us. We can relate to those that are suffering the abuse of regimes that continue to repress the fundamental rights of people in places like Libya, Syria, Yemen, and Bahrain. We not only relate to those who are homeless or suffering abuse -- but we be with them in the sense that we are all members of one human family. We can be with them in both spirit and in supportive actions that limitations in our time and resources may allow.

In many ways, the Sonnleitner family clearly is joined with the Thomas family in India among many others. On Easter my wife and I recalled our sharing with the Stany Thomas and his family in Kerala. It was as if the explosives of early Easter morning were exploding again, followed by the loudspeaker music, a packed worship service that everyone but the priest believed went too long, and the memorable procession featured in the photo from last year at that time. The remembering of the hospitality they shared with us then is made even more sweet as we look forward to Stany and Shanty Thomas coming to see us beginning next August. Yes. Final approval has been announced of Stany Thomas being granted a Fulbright Award to be at Portland Community College (where I teach) during the Fall of 2011. Already we are planning some of the wonderful experiences we may share with them the. The reunion of our families will be cause for celebration.

Communications with others this month have also boosted our spirits. My sister Dina Patel in India continues her work republishing the Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi. Alvaro Tacchini`s family in Italy is morning the departure of his mother in law and father in law from this life. Our friend Kathy Kelly has safely returned from leading a delegation of peace activists to Afganistan for three weeks – and was almost immediately arrested upon her return to the U.S. for protesting against the use of predatory drone technology in Pakistan. Mohamed in Egypt is back to work as a night watchman at an hotel in Aswan, wondering what the future may hold for the ongoing changes in his country. Mazin Qumsiyeh in Bethlehem continues to provide insights into the unfolding of events in the occupied West Bank, as well as regarding an apparent reuniting of Fatah and Hamas with a common call for change in Israeli policies which create barriers to peace.

In Portland, this month also saw other peace activities in here Portland, Oregon. Among these was the resurrection of a regional Peace and Conflict Studies (PSCS) Consortium, in a Symposium which I helped organize at Portland Community College. Although only a dozen people representing only three institutions attended, groundwork was laid for a better turnout (from at least 10 educational institutions) next November. Kristine and I were also among a large crowd who heard Jody Williams speak about the activities for which she was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize in 1997. Co-founder of a Campaign to Ban Land Mines, Jody began crafting a treaty and organizing on the internet which mobilized support for an agreement to ban the 1) production, 2) sale, and 3) deployment of land mines anywhere in the world. Efforts begun by her in an apartment while she was unemployed have now resulted in a treaty ratified by over 140 countries – not yet including the United States. Neither G.W. Bush nor Barach Obama have been willing to set aside military justifications for the continued use of land mines, even though future generations of civilians (and especially playing children) continue to be killed and maimed by these weapons long after conflicts have ended.

Looking to lifelong teachers like Dr. George Ball provides insights into building a better world. It is not just what they say, it is how they live. It is about critical thinking, yes – but even more about surrendering to a compassionate heart. It is all about how we manifest our values while relating to others, including those who may be overwhelmed by great hardships that prompt them to angrily act out causing great harm to others.

Jesus knew this as he observed how ``Even as you do unto the least of these my brethren, you do unto me``. Buddha was equally astute when he said ``Hate cannot destroy hate, only love can destroy hate``. Among others in my life, Dr. Ball has modeled these truths. When Barach Obama authorized and oversaw the premeditated killing of Osama Ben Laden on May 1st, these truths were trumped by feelings of revenge and political expediency. May God have mercy upon all who kill others, even if they act with the best of intentions.