The Sacrament of the Arts: Theatre at its Best

If ever there were a perfect illustration of the Sacrament of the Arts it would be  found up in White River Junction, Vermont where Northern Stage’s recent production of the play Oslo blew the audience away.   That is, blew them away by gathering them in.  Let me explain.

This award-winning play by J.T. Rogers tells the story of two Norwegian diplomats who, on their own, decided to try to make peace in the Middle East.    It was the 1990s — Israel and the PLO were at war, civilian deaths were mounting and the official government peace talks were dead in the water.  Secret, back-channel talks began in Oslo, and against all odds, after nearly insurmountable difficulties, the Norwegians did it:  by the end of the play the leaders of Israel and the PLO had signed the Oslo Peace Accords.  How did they do it? Through a humanist approach.  Up to this time, some of the Palestinians had never even met an Israeli. The Norwegians insisted that there be time each day to eat together, relax together, to call each other by their first names—in short, to get to know each other as real people.    They met at the human level and the business of negotiation was conducted in a separate room.  Once the human connections had been forged, things began to change in their deliberations. There was more trust, more willingness to compromise, more empathy.   The final result was a victory for Humanism

And then the Dark Side had its innings.  Rabin, the leader of Israel was accused by conservatives of selling out.  The Bible, they said, gave all the land to the Jews. Period.  Rabin was assassinated.  Everything fell apart.  So here we are, still in a never-ending cycle of death that feeds all the war and unrest in that region: Libya, Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Yemen, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan—so much hate directed at Israel and the United States, and when I ask my students why they hate us, they have no clue or come up with something as off-the-mark as George Bush’s comment that they resent our freedom.

Let’s come back to the play.  The great thing about theatre is that by its very nature it reminds us of our humanity. All these people come together—the cast, the writer, the tech crew, the audience—and they bond for a couple of hours. The audience is drawn into the lives and passions of the characters on stage. They see the world through their eyes, they share their joys, they sympathize, they suffer with them in their defeats.  It wouldn’t be the same if they were alone in a room streaming a film on Netflix, or even if they were in a crowded movie theatre, though that can come close.  No, it’s the fact that the spectator is there, shoulder to shoulder with others, taking in the drama together and being transformed by it.

At the end of Oslo, after it all goes to hell, the Norwegian protagonist turns  directly to the audience and says “My friends, if we have come this far, through blood, through fear—hatred—how much further  can we yet go? There on the horizon, The Possibility. Do you see it? Do you?”  and each night of the run someone answered “Yes.”  It gives you chills.

One final note:  this kind of theatre experience doesn’t happen by accident.   It takes a certain kind of person at the top to create the atmosphere that can bring out the best in everyone. Creativity is strangled under dictators and thrives in a climate of warmth and support.  Northern Stage is blessed to have Carol Dunne as Artistic Director, Eric Bunge as Managing Director, and for Oslo, Peter Hackett as director.   It’s a happy place to work.


The Bible is Israel’s Deed? The Death of Oslo

Never doubt the power of the group experience!   This is the Fourth Sacrament, that amazing energy that galvanizes a crowd at a football game, a victory march, or a rock concert.    At certain moments we are gripped by a feeling of Oneness with our fellow mortals, a tremendous euphoria can burst forth, transcendent, transformational.

But, as with all the Sacraments there is a dark side, and this week HBO’s Oslo Diaries gave us that in depressing detail.  25 years ago Israeli President Rabin and PLO leader Arafat finally found some common ground for a peace plan, but amid so much hope and good will generated by these Oslo agreements there was also so much anger and bad feeling,

Nothing was more disturbing than to see Netanyahu, the leader of the Likud Party, answering Rabin’s statement that Israel had no mandate to rule the West Bank, with “the Bible is our mandate, the Bible is our deed!” What can you say to someone who believes that God has given them the right to live in a certain place based on something written thousands of years ago?   It harkens back to the Manifest Destiny claims of our misguided ancestors who believed the Creator of the Universe interested Himself in our political affairs and favored our conquest of the Southwest from the benighted natives and Mexicans.

Actually there was something more disturbing in the Oslo Diaries: the rallies that year, where opponents of the peace accords packed the streets–fired-up, banner-waving zealots chanting “Death to Rabin!”, carrying coffins and nooses, burning Rabin’s picture while a smug Netanyahu looked on in approval.   This was the Dark Side in earnest, calling to mind the crowds at a Mussolini tirade or a Hitler harangue or—let’s say it– a Trump rally with people chanting “Lock her up!” or mocking reporters in a cage, led by a self-aggrandizing, self-satisfied hate-monger.

Could we all agree that we don’t want to live in a world where people chant “Death” to anyone?   Or make a hero of an assassin?  But of course, in their view Rabin’s killer was doing God’s work.  Rabin wanted to give the West Bank back to the Palestinians and remember:  “The Bible is our deed” to the West Bank.    So the question is,  how would you convince someone the Bible is not a deed?

Reason: I find it impossible to believe God told someone what to write word-for-word.

Zealot: You don’t have to believe it.  I believe it.

Reason: But you want me to support your claim that you own this land where someone else is now living.

Zealot: You don’t have to support me. I have a gun.  I will defend what God has given me.

This is the definition of madness.


The Cave Boys from Thailand and the Migrant Crisis

At this historic time when nations are fracturing into ever-smaller pieces of political antagonism, the dramatic rescue of the Thai boys and their coach gives us a glimpse of a different kind of world.  The amazing events in Thailand bring to mind that climactic scene from the 1960s comedy The Russians Are Coming! The Russians Are Coming! where some stranded Russian submariners on Cape Cod and the local Americans are about to kill each other in a tense standoff, when suddenly a small boy watching from the church steeple slips and falls.  His belt catches on the eaves leaving him hanging dangerously high above the ground. The Russians and Americans drop their guns and rush to save the boy, jointly forming a human pyramid to rescue the dangling child. Elation! The adrenaline flows.  There are cheers, embraces, laughter.  The mistrust, the fear of the Other falls away. They have become One, just as the world became One as we watched this current drama in Thailand play out day after day.

So, then, what about the migrants?  Why can’t we muster that same single-minded purpose to help them as we have done for the Thai boys?  They are also, many of them, in immediate danger.  Many of them are children.  Why are so many people NOT reacting with the same compassionate urgency that we witnessed in these incredible scenes from Thailand?

Clearly the answer is fear.  We are afraid of these migrants who are not Us.  Whether it’s religion, or skin color, or language—in whatever way they are different, it doesn’t really matter, The point is that they threaten to make the place where we live look and feel Other than it has felt up to now, altering what we have grown up with and want to preserve.  A dozen boys in danger far away in a cave are not the same as millions of migrants crossing into a continent looking for permanent homes and jobs on the street where you live.

But the reality is, the dangers to the migrants in their home countries are no less frightening than those rising floodwaters threatening the boys in the cave.  We will never stop the flow of those unfortunate people banging on our doors for help until those dangers are removed, and the root of all the dangers is overpopulation and changing climate.  Since the Catholic Church and the current American government in particular are loath to do much to address those causes, the best we can hope for is a viable plan for dealing with the stream of refugee-seekers who will inevitably try to enter countries where a better life beckons.  That is a plan that no country has as yet.

If only we could extend the good feelings generated from the Thai rescue to the plight of the migrants, using that adrenaline as a springboard to solving this difficult but most pressing of problems facing the world! If the American government is frozen into incapacity, what about the private sector?  Could the Trump Organization, for example, stop building golf courses for a while, and instead lead the way in building places of refuge for those fleeing violence, or maybe education centers to explain birth control, or fully fund those organizations that are already doing this kind of thing on the ground?    Think about it.

On Suffering: Christianity and Transcendentalism

The suffering of the children and parents on our border brings up again the age-old question: why does there have to be so much suffering in the world? The short answer is, of course, there doesn’t have to be “so much”–our government is shamefully inflicting needless suffering on these poor families.  But what about suffering more generally?  If there is a loving God, as so many Americans believe, why all this pain and anguish in the world?

The question of suffering resonated powerfully with me this week owing to two separate occurrences.  One was a fantastic piece of theatre, an imagined modern conversation between Emerson and his muse, Margaret Fuller, played out at a picnic in a park in Peterborough, NH by two brilliant actors.   They joke, they eat, they ask about each other’s work, and then they begin to argue about the nature of Beauty. Emerson claims it can be found in all things,   Fuller disagrees, forcefully, and gives him the example of a girl waiting to be picked up by her parent after a long stay at summer camp, sitting on her suitcase, watching all the other children disappearing one by one with their mothers and fathers…But her mother will never come. She has been killed in an accident en route to bringing back her child.   Fuller cannot see any beauty in that scene—it haunts her:  the child growing more and more fearful, more desperate sensing something is wrong…she can’t stop thinking about it.

And yet, Emerson tells her, you are carrying that child with you now, and will be forever. You have wrapped her in your thoughts, your loving thoughts, and won’t let her go—that is a beautiful thing.  To care about someone, to have your heart go out to someone in trouble, someone who is suffering…there is Beauty in that.

At the same time, I’m reading George Eliot’s first novel, Adam Bede, and the good-hearted young protagonist, Dinah, who is devoting her life to helping those in need in a poor mining village, writes  a letter to a friend, describing what happens to her just after dusk each night:

“I sit in my chair in the dark room and close my eyes…and then, the very hardship, and the sorrow, and the blindness, and the sin, I have beheld and been ready to weep over,–yea, all the anguish of the children of men, which sometimes wraps me round like sudden darkness—I can bear with a willing pain, as if I was sharing the Redeemer’s cross.   For I feel it, I feel it—infinite love is suffering too—yea, in the fulness of knowledge it suffers, it yearns, it mourns; … sorrow is then a part of love, and love does not seek to throw it off.  It is not the spirit only that tells me this—I see it in the whole work and word of the gospel.  Is there not pleading in heaven?  Is not the Man of Sorrows there in that crucified body wherewith he ascended? And is he not one with the Infinite Love itself—as our love is one with our sorrow?”

As Thich Nat Hanh said: Of course we have to have suffering, otherwise how would we ever learn compassion?

This is not to excuse the shameful separations forced on these families by our government.   Arguments about Beauty and Love aren’t going to end their suffering.  But as Elliot and Emerson, the Christian voice and the Transcendentalist,  point out, we can, and we must,  find common ground in a world of suffering through the compassion it awakens in us.

Dinah’s letter may be the best explanation of Christian love I’ve ever read.

Immigration: The Problem That Will Never Go Away

Hey, does it seem like the immigration issue just will not die?  Wow, it keeps coming back into the news over and over again, doesn’t it…. But maybe now with all the outrage about the children snatched from the arms of their parents we’ll get a law that will solve the problem and…

No, sorry–that ain’t gonna happen, folks!  Even if we do get a law of some kind to address the current concerns, that’s not going to address the root of the problem.   If you think migrants are  dominating the airwaves now, wait a few years.  The desire of families to leave their home country and brave the oceans, the deserts, the elements, the brigands along the road, the sentinels at the border, and the xenophobes in the promised land will only grow more desperate—and why? For three main reasons:

1) Ever-increasing numbers of people competing for resources

2) Climate change making it more difficult to grow food and have access to water

3) Civil unrest because of 1 and 2, leading to the violence of gangs, warlords, rebellions

If you were a family living in a region under stress from this unholy triad, you would do whatever it took to get somewhere—anywhere—where you could make a living in peace and have a better chance for your children to survive.  So no one should be surprised that people are on the move and will continue to be.  So, how are we ever going to prevent the heartbreaking scenes of the past weeks, months and years, scenes of refugees fleeing their impoverished, war-torn, gang-dominated countries only to be herded into prisons, tent cities, and shanty towns?

The most difficult challenge is the climate.  Since so many American leaders are unwilling to face the truth about this disaster-in-the-making and pass laws that will wean us of fossil fuels, the best we can do is to start preparing for the lack of water, the rise of sea levels, the desiccation of certain regions of the earth and figure out in advance where these poor people are going to go as their island homes disappear or their aquifers dry up.  Without a plan, it will be chaos, or more like the Apocalypse as people get more and more desperate to simply survive.  The UN should get on this, now.

But the real key has to be population control, which is one of the causes of both the second and third problems listed above.   If you haven’t figured that out yet then you are part of the problem.  You, yes you, in effect, are one of the ones who will be creating those scenes on the borders around the world, of children and their parents risking everything to find a better life.   Unless you think you can prevent births by trusting to male celibacy, then start sending money to Planned Parenthood, Pathfinder International, and other organizations that offer contraceptive advice, and, yes, abortions.  Too many children born today are going to die of starvation or drown on a boat crossing the Mediterranean or be forced into a concentration camp in Texas.  Every birth should be a time of joy, a sacrament, and that means working to ensure that families, communities, and entire nations will have the means to support each child in a healthy way.  Every child should be a wanted child, but more than that, a child who has a chance at a good life.  There is no way to ensure that without limiting the population.


America, Were You Raised in a Barn?

When a kid does or says something that’s considered bad manners, like leaving a door open or using a naughty word, the parent might say, “Where were you raised, in a barn?” Well, I actually was raised in a barn. My earliest memories are of hanging out with my brothers,  my father and grandfather in the cow barn where 50 Holsteins peacefully ruminated.   Those were happy days, but I’ll tell you one thing:   no bad talk was tolerated in our family, whether in the house or in the barn. There were some people around who swore a lot or reveled in off-color or scatological subjects, but not in our household. My parents let us know pretty quick and in no uncertain terms what was off limits.

I am often amazed at how our culture has slid into what my mother would call “vulgarity”. I attribute that in large part to our insatiable thirst for ever-more edgy humor. Today we can be entertained by dozens of funnymen and women throwing those obscenities around, going one step farther than anyone has ever gone before, apparently selecting their subject matter based on what is most outrageous in its crudity.    Not to be outdone, the movies are steeped in gross-out scenes that seem to delight the adolescent mind.  Congratulations, America! You got what you wanted.

Now we’re all caught up in the question of whether Samantha Bee should be fired for her use of a particular taboo word to describe Ivanka Trump.   Let me go on record as saying I think Samantha Bee can be pretty funny, but I don’t want to hear her or anyone else dipping into the Anglo-Saxon vocabulary on the airwaves.   I also don’t want to hear allusions to bodily functions and fluxes that seem to be de rigueur for any would-be screenwriter or comedian these days, and frankly, I wish other people didn’t want to either.

We have Freedom of Speech, but does that mean anyone can say anything?   It shouldn’t, and it didn’t use to.  America!  Sweet Land of Liberty! What happened to “Sweet”? Come out of the barn, stop trying to be cruder than the next guy, and go wash your mouth out with soap!

Unbelief on the Move, thank the good Lord!

News worth noting: the number of American who claim no religious affiliation (the Nones) has passed the number of white evangelical Christians, according to an ABC/Washington Post Poll.

Year                              2003         2017

White evangelicals     21%         13%

No religion                   12%          21%

This is a trend that’s been building for quite some time and will continue to build because the percentage of under 30s who count themselves among the Nones is 35%.   It’s noteworthy because it begs the question that is the subject of Seven Sacraments for Everyone: if you’ve given up on religion, where does your moral code come from? God or the gods deliver the faithful their marching orders through Holy Writ and its interpreters, those priests, pastors, imams, rabbis, and gurus who instruct the average Joe, Yusuf, or Rajeev on what is right and what is wrong. But if you’ve given up on all that, where do you go for some idea of a moral code? Do you look into your heart? But hearts are different. They’re influenced by culture and temperament. Is it possible that there can be a range of moral codes out there in the world, that what’s wrong for me can be right for you? Some say yes.

But on the big moral questions, the answer must be a resounding “no.” We have to find a universal moral code, applicable to everyone, especially as the world grows smaller through our technological innovations. When people on different continents are connected ever more closely via the media and transportation, we’ve got to make sure we’re tuning into the same moral wavelength or the connections become collisions —fatal collisions.   If we care anything about peace, we have to have some solid common ground to stand on.

Philosophical common ground is what is lacking so much in the Middle East, as the fight over the physical ground continues. Who has the right to own the land where Abraham and Jesus walked? If you look at the Holy Scriptures or listen to the religious leaders, you’ll find support for whichever side you’re on, and this method of determining what’s right will dig us deeper and deeper into the quagmire that is the Middle East.  Netanyahu is getting his support from those Jews who believe that narrative of divine real estate and also from evangelical Christians who point not just to Genesis, but to the book of Revelation as guidance for their stance on things like making Jerusalem the capital of Israel and the Palestinians be damned… literally, they would say.

With the Nones on the move in America and even stronger in much of Europe there is hope that eventually we will be able to synchronize our moral codes, focusing on those joyous experiences that we all share by virtue of our membership in the human race.   Among the most important is belonging to a group, but not just a localized group, a family, a clan, a gang, or Us, the Chosen People, but the entire neighborhood, community, country–the world.  At that point we may be able to override the momentum that has brought the Middle East to the brink of blowing itself up and the whole world with it.

But all this will take time.

French Proposal to Edit the Quran

Karina Piser in the Atlantic tells us about a manifesto published in a French newspaper and signed by 300 “prominent intellectuals.” The subject? Editing the Quran.   These luminaries call on Islamic religious authorities to weed out those verses that justify the murder and punishment of Jews, Christians, and other nonbelievers so that no Muslim would be able to say they committed an act of terror because a sacred text told him to.  Actually they didn’t say “weed out”–they said  the verses in question should be frappés d’obsolescence–made obsolete.

Who would argue with that? Especially given some of the horrible murders of innocent Jewish women that have occurred recently.  Well, no one should be surprised that imams around the world were outraged, with some accusing France of racism and blasphemy.   The Quran, in their view came directly from God to the angel Gabriel to Mohammed who gave it to us. Period. “How could you dare to edit God’s word?” they say.  “Do you think Mohammed mis-heard something? It’s impossible!”

OK, first it’s not racism to point out that certain texts in a holy book are being used as justification for terrible crimes. You could be any race and feel called upon to commit these crimes because of a koranic verse. So let’s not confuse the issue with the word “racism.” Second, of course it’s blasphemy to a fundamentalist Muslim who believes every word came from God. The signers of the manifesto must have known they would get this reaction and that they would have their suggestion thrown back in their faces in disgust. If someone’s mind is made up, especially about religion, arguing with them is like banging your head against a brick wall.

But don’t the imams agree there’s a problem?  They do, but they suggest that that the Quran is being misused by a group of misguided youths and criminals who are too ignorant to understand the meanings of the verses.   It’s their job as imams, they say, to promote a critical reading of the text and help their people come to an understanding of the true meaning of this gift from a kinder, gentler deity.

The only trouble with that is, for every imam emphasizing the softer side, there’s nothing to stop others from seizing on other texts in order to justify the medieval atrocities they revel in.   So what’s to be done?

The Muslim leaders are closer to the spirit of the manifesto than they may realize.   The imams are angry that a group of ignorant terrorists have commandeered their religion, bringing it into disrepute.   The signers of the manifesto want to do something about those people, but it seems that the semantics of the term frappés d’obsolescence– threw a monkey wrench into the good work they were trying to achieve.   Some different language, like “coming to terms with confusing verses” might help.  One Muslim professor on a radio show emphasized the mystery behind the verses of the Quran, and how there needs to be lots of discussion in the community about meanings.

Fair enough, but it should be clear to all but the most benighted individuals, that certain sentiments and rules have no place in the 21st century.   We need to get beyond the point we’re at now, with terrorists justifying their mayhem and massacres by citing God’s wishes chapter and verse.   There is not going to be a wholesale conversion of the Muslim world to Christianity, Buddhism, or Ethical Humanism anytime soon, so in the meantime, we have to deal with the Quran, and it would behoove the Islamic authorities to move in the direction that Christianity has.   The Bible forbids divorce and working on the Sabbath but most Christians view these strictures as inconsistent with where we are in the world today.  They ignore them, or they have reinterpreted them.     In short, they are treated as obsolete.  Perhaps we could say God  worked through His prophets in the olden days but expected us to have the brains to realize  that some changes would be needed as time went on.

Baghwan Sri Rajneesh (Osho) and the Sacrament of the Group

Drop everything and watch Wild, Wild Country on Netflix, the incredible tale of guru Baghwan Sri Rajneesh (Osho), his attempt to create a paradise on earth in Oregon, and how it all went wrong. This should be required viewing at any university’s humanities program.   How could people of good will so bent on creating a world of love and peace end up hated and feared and persecuted by an entire state? It’s a clash of cultures with so many missteps on both sides.

First of all, comes arrogance.   You can’t roll into a place with a chip on your shoulder, claiming you’ve got all the answers, that you’re going to wave your magic wand and presto! all the local yokels will see the light, leave their former ignorant lives and join you in your ecstatic dance around the guru.   It’s not like the Spanish coming to the New World and the natives witnessing the impressive technological marvels this new culture had to offer. No, the Oregonians who lived nearby just saw a bunch of weird people all dressed in red who looked like they were stoned half the time.   It didn’t help when the front-woman for the Rajneeshees was Sheela, who seems to never have spoken about the locals without her lip curling into a sneer.

On the other hand, the county clerk in Oregon seems to have clearly violated election law and gotten away with it scot free.   The law in Oregon said that you only had to be a resident in Oregon for 21 days before an election in order to register to vote.   The Rajneeshees idea to win the election was to bus in street people from all over the country and give them a home in their commune–food and shelter in exchange for work.   They would then be eligible to vote and presumably vote for the representatives that Sheela wanted.   This is a scary strategy—one that any wealthy group could exploit to tip an election, but the law is the law. It was appalling to watch the county clerk with the backing of law enforcement refuse to register the newcomers, calling to mind the denial of voting rights in the South in the 60s.

But the main thing you get out of this 6-part series is just how powerful the Sacrament of the Group is. This need to belong is so strong within us—we want to be part of something, anything that will give our lives meaning.   All these people flocking to gurus in India, and later to be part of a commune in Oregon, agreeing to wear the same color clothing as a badge of honor that now you truly belong to “the master”—wow, to an outsider you look like nothing but automatons who have checked your reason at the door, giving your minds over fully to a con man who has hypnotized you into accepting his will as law.   There is no reason to doubt the sincerity of the denizens of the commune as they tell us how happy they were in those days back in the 80s under the guidance of Osho and Sheela, but what it looks like is they were lobotomized by their desire to belong, as so many gang members are today, so many cult members, so many teenagers anxious to conform to the in-crowd at their schools.

There is also a Sacrament of Friends and Mentors. Every human being needs teachers and friends who will guide them and support them as they go through the twists and turns life presents them. It’s not exactly clear what Osho was all about—he certainly had charisma, but in the end was he on some kind of power trip, basking in the adulation his votaries were only too willing to offer?   The moral seems only too clear: never abandon Reason and Humility as you navigate the rough waters of existence.


Peace in the Middle East Can Begin with Apologies

Today a BBC interview with Dr. Izzeldin Abueleish provided a much-needed wake up call to the world.   Dr. Abueleish lived in Gaza with his family in 2009 at the time when the Israeli army was striking back at the Palestinians. Two shells crashed into the bedroom of his house, killing 3 of his daughters and a niece while wounding several other family members.   Since then his mission has been to help end the violence that has engulfed the entire region. For him, a key part of this would be an apology from Israel, something he has not yet received.   Why would this be important? Because, he explains, it would be an acknowledgement that he and his family were not just the detritus of battle, worth no more than the rubble of a fallen building.  They were and are human beings, with all the dignity and value that entails.  This is the lesson that people in conflict forget time and time again. We dehumanize our opponents treating them as vermin or targets instead of  neighbors–real people, human beings.

It would have been so easy for the doctor to slide into a never-ending hatred of those responsible, but, as the old saying goes, hatred is like drinking a cup of poison and expecting your enemy to die. There has to be more, there has to be reconciliation, and for that there has to be a willingness on both sides to seek restorative justice and not retribution. It begins with the stories– the pain, the losses, the fear–all parties listening to the others,  humanizing what has been dehumanized.  Then there have to be apologies. It’s difficult to see why the Israeli government or military or both cannot say they are sorry for what happened to those girls in Gaza that day.  They claim they were firing on militants and maybe they were, but why should that make it more difficult to apologize?  Are they afraid of seeming weak?

Dr. Abueleish turned his back on hatred.  His way of dealing with his loss has been  to establish a foundation that encourages women from the Middle East to study at universities: Daughters for Life.  

He feels that educating young women is one of the keys to finding peace in the Middle East.  One of the keys.  There are so many.  But who can doubt that he’s right and applaud his efforts.