What Do You Do with Captured Terrorists?

An unrepentant terrorist’s wife in a prison camp in Syria who wants to go back to live in London?   This is the riddle of Shamima Begum, the UK citizen who at 15 was groomed to be part of the Caliphate so with two girlfriends took off for Syria.  There she willingly married a jihadist and had two children. The Caliphate has disappeared now, she and her Dutch husband is a prisoner, her two children are dead of malnutrition, and she’s about to give birth to another child. She wants to return to the UK for her baby’s sake, but apparently shows no remorse for taking up the cause of ISIS.  Should the UK let her back in?  Is she fit to be a mother?  Is she going to keep on supporting ISIS, maybe set off a bomb or two in Victoria Station? This is someone who said life was “normal” in Raqqa, who claims she shrugged off seeing the heads of those who were decapitated tossed into rubbish bins.

Sentiments around her repatriation range from “let her rot in hell there in Syria” to “let’s think of a way to save her brainwashed soul and that of her child.”

Here’s what we should say to her:

You have been seeking the sacred in life, and were told by people you trusted that it can be found in a new society where everyone will live according to the wisdom delivered to us ages ago through a Divine agency. 

You and they have misjudged the Divine. 

We are surrounded by experiences that can bring us a sense of the Divine, of the Sacred, of God—whatever word you give It is always inadequate, but we know It when we experience It because the gauge is something every human being has within them: compassion. Even tragic experiences like witnessing the death of a friend or facing your own demise can bring us this sense of awe, of a transcendence  that defies description as compassion for the suffering of others overwhelms us or their compassion washes over us in our hours of trial.   

But without compassion death becomes the vehicle for the darker forces that still lurk beneath the veneer of civilization.  The savagery of our animal natures can erupt at any moment, and if reinforced by those preaching a gospel of hate, claiming a vengeful god told them the secrets of the universe or wrote it in a book thousands of years ago and the secret is to mercilessly enslave some of the unbelievers and cut the throats of others—well then, they have been blinded by a desire for power over others rather than compassion for them.  They pervert the Sacrament of Death.

The road to God is through compassion. 

The world now has its hands full of thousands of radicalized (read: delusional and dangerous) men and women, together with their offspring who will also fall under the spell of this doctrine unless something is done about it.  What that something will be has yet to be determined, but if there is any hope for a better world, the need to teach that the Divine begins with our humanity to others is the key.


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.


Trump to Widow: Why It Came Out Wrong

Can it get any worse? Now what should be a sacred moment, a time for grieving over the deaths of soldiers in Africa has become the latest cause célèbre in our suffering nation’s ongoing political battles. The newspapers and airwaves are full of invective and insult, argument and anger over what Trump said to the widow of a fallen soldier. But everyone is missing a key point in this whole thing: the gender aspect.

Men and women have different speaking styles. Men like to be direct. John Kelly told us that the casualty officer who brought the news of his son’s death said: “Kell, He was doing exactly what he wanted to do when he was killed. He knew what he was getting into…and when he died he was surrounded by the best men on this earth—his friends.”   Any man can see how this would be the right thing to say to a father who is also a soldier.   Marines become a band of brothers. They look out for each other. They’re brave. When they sign up they know that we’re at war and a percentage of them are not coming back. General Kelly’s statement ends by saying “That’s what the president tried to say…”

But the thing is, what might make a father feel somewhat better, especially a father who is also a soldier, doesn’t necessarily strike a mother or widow the same way.   They don’t want to hear that he knew what he was getting into, and I’m sure a lot of men wouldn’t either, especially when it just happened and the grief is raw.

As Deborah Tannen’s work has shown, men and women are constantly speaking at cross-purposes because they don’t understand each other’s styles. Men don’t like to apologize, they don’t like to ask directions, and they use speech to establish status. They’re wired to be competitive –you can’t show weakness, whereas women are cooperative.   They talk in order to gain intimacy with friends, telling their troubles as a way of sharing and becoming closer. When men hear about troubles, they start looking for solutions—they think women are asking for advice and they readily give it. This has created a new word recently: “man-splaining.” Women hate it.

What Trump said may have sounded like man-splaining, but more than that it came off as just plain insensitive.   What sounded good to Kelly and Trump was exactly what this grieving widow did not want to be reminded of.

There’s one further addition to the mix that made this case particularly bitter and that is the fact that our current president is terrible with language. Not having heard a tape of the conversation with the widow, we have to rely on her report and that of the congresswoman, but is there any doubt in anyone’s mind that Trump took Kelly’s advice and made a hash out of it? And even if he didn’t garble the words, he’s so aggressive-sounding in his speech, so blustery, so New York City, that anything he said was liable to come out wrong.

Melania seems like a nice person.  Maybe she could get involved and help with these kinds of communications.

The Unpardonable Sin: Examples from Christianity and Islam

The Bible contains a cryptic passage in Mark 3:28-9 where Jesus tells his disciples that all sins and blasphemies can be forgiven

But he that shall blaspheme against the Holy Ghost hath never forgiveness, but is in danger of eternal damnation.

There have been a lot of sermons written on this idea of the unpardonable sin, but perhaps what it really means to “blaspheme against the Holy Ghost” is to deny the divine spirit that exists in each of us, that part of us that raises us above the beasts and makes us human.

We have seen examples of what it is to deny our humanity too often recently.   A death cult has grown and spread that under the guise of religion, of serving a deity,  demands that its faithful seek out innocent people and kill them in any manner possible. Blow them up, hack them to death, gun them down—it doesn’t matter.   Men, women, children, Christian, Hindu—it’s all the same if they are infidels. That’s the way to a better world, by starting a war of attrition that will end with a lot of people dead, but remember, the infidels don’t matter, and the faithful die as martyrs and martyrdom is a great blessing. It must be true, that’s what the holy men say, and if I doubt what they say, then perhaps I am an infidel too.

Lest we in the Western World get too righteously indignant, let me remind you of an event that occurred back in the 13th century. At that time in southern France a sect of Christianity spread called Catharism, which among other things, rejected the sacraments of the Roman Catholic Church, and so, logically, rejected the priest’s power to perform these miraculous rites. Rome got worried about this challenge to its power, and let it be known that if anyone would take up arms against these heretics, all past sins would be pardoned, and not only that, any sins committed in this crusade against the Cathars (Albigensians) would be pardoned too.   That was nothing short of a license to rape, plunder, and murder at will, and there were plenty of knights and desperados kicking around who were just waiting for an opportunity like this.   Led by the newly-formed Inquisition they ravaged, ravished, and burned these unfortunate, good-hearted people, until none of them were left, one of the first recorded genocides.   The crusade succeeded and God smiled once again on his servants in the Vatican. It was just a warm-up for the Inquisition which continued to torture and immolate infidels and apostates for six centuries.

I’ll have more to say about the Cathars later, but the point this time around is that we’re re-living that horrible time in history, where religious leaders utterly distort the central message of the founders of their faith.  It’s no longer “help people who are suffering,” but “believe what I tell you or I will kill you.” The focus should not be on conversion, but compassion.   To twist that around is to forget we are human beings, it’s to become a kind of monster that sees a crowded street full of people, full of life,  as nothing more than a place to spill blood.  That is the unpardonable sin.

Confronting the Dark Side in Portland

It’s just too stark—the contrast revealed in the tragedy on the commuter train outside Portland, Oregon a week ago jumps out at you.   The images say so much: On the one hand we have Jeremy Christian a scowling, angry, self-styled nihilist, spewing his message of hate, wrapped in the American flag, a blind nationalist xenophobe, someone who is clearly unbalanced, hoping for a chance to cut someone down, shouting out death threats even in a court of law…

…and then there are those brave souls who confronted this darkness: first a student/poet, second an ex-soldier-father-of-four, and finally, Taliesin Myrdden Namkai-Meche, a young man just out of college, full of life, beloved by all his friends and family, beaming with bonhomie and good-will-toward-men, who as he lay dying in the care of a stranger managed to say, “Tell everyone on this train I love them.”

And who can forget his mother,  Asha Deliverance, who at the vigil for the victims urged us to say no to hate, to “give it up for love.” As a Muslim girl in a headscarf approached her afterwards she reached out and….well, one picture is worth a thousand words.

Forget the photo of Iwo Jima, the Moon Landing, or the Fall of Saigon–this picture beats them all.  It’s a moment of transcendence, a glimpse of our higher selves. It’s the Pieta for our century, and like Michaelangelo’s masterpiece, we feel the mother’s grief at the child lost, a good life destroyed by the Dark Side, but amidst that pain the triumph over death through love.

Nihilism versus Lovingkindness. Is there really a choice about the way forward to a better world?

New Church’s Motto: It’s Relationships Not Religion

A very moving story appeared in the local paper about a married, Christian couple who started a successful pizzeria years ago. Then she came down with multiple sclerosis.   Their lives became very difficult as she grew worse, but their faith only grew. When she became nearly immobile, they began holding non-denominational church services right there in the restaurant with family members attending. Then word spread and others began to join them.   Currently their congregation is small, but thriving and they’re moving into a larger space.     But what jumped out at you in the article was what her son said about their gatherings. Commenting on the falling membership in churches around the country, he said he hopes to “reinvigorate people’s faith—we’re a relationship, not a religion.”


Isn’t that what it’s all about, when you come right down to it?   And the point is, relationships with other people. This is what brought friends and acquaintances into their services in the restaurant. Her illness required support from others, spiritual support and physical support. That’s something we all need.   It’s what I call the extension of the Sacrament of Death because it’s not just at a deathbed that we need to become caregivers.   We all get sick, and we all need help when we do. Sometimes we get better soon, and sometimes they last a lifetime, but what doesn’t change is our need for courage to get through it, and our need for support when we’re weak and in pain.

Some may argue that as far as relationships go, the primary one is between you and Jesus or God or Allah.  Some may call on the deity or on one of the many saints for help in these crises, and if that works for you, more power to you. But that still doesn’t change the basic need for human-to-human contact and the touch of a hand or a cheering word from someone at your bedside. The Spirit, or if you like, the “Hand of God” works through our fellow human beings and it is through human relationships– compassion, friendship, caregiving and caring–that we can provide and receive some degree of solace in these difficult times.

Some Christians like to remind us that the Bible says “only through Christ” can you be saved, and maintain that these humanistic teachings get us off the track.  More on that later.


Murdering Your Way to Freedom and Power

It’s a momentous day in Europe. The last armed rebel group on the continent has laid down its weapons and disbanded. ETA, the Basque independence fighters will no longer be blowing people up or kidnapping and shooting them. Hundreds have died in the name of Basque freedom, thousands have been injured. Now they realize it wasn’t and isn’t worth it.

Their reasoning was this: we want an independent Basque region. Spain will not give it to us. But if we make life miserable for the ordinary Spaniard, they will eventually say, “Get out, and take your damned region with you. Just leave us alone.” And the way to make life miserable is to set off bombs in random shopping centers, detonate cars for assassinations–the usual formula for mayhem and murder. It’s a harsh calculus, trading the lives of many hundreds of innocent people for political sovereignty, and it didn’t work.

There’s hardly a country in Europe that does not have some group agitating for autonomy or outright secession. Catalonia and Galicia in Spain, Scotland, and Wales in the UK, some in Belgium want to split that country up into Flanders and Wallonia. It makes you ask yourself, is life so onerous under the yoke of these existing nations that all these people want out? The grass seems always greener on the other side, and yet, is it? And is it worth anyone’s life to get it? Let’s hope everyone keeps cool and the issues can be resolved peacefully.

The other good news is that the rebel group FARC in Columbia is in the process of disarming as well. They, too, seem to have realized that their goals might be more easily achieved in a different way than through armed conflict.   But, alas, a renegade group has rejected the peace deal, and this week blew up a car full of soldiers. Once violence becomes habitual, it’s never easy to stop it. A single disgruntled combatant can cause a lot of damage.

This brings us to the Middle East where the violence goes on and on. This week in addition to the marketplace bombings that have become commonplace, we had the bombings of two Egyptian Christian churches, killing dozens on Palm Sunday. You can’t help but ask yourself, what would it take for these deluded killers to see what the Basques and FARC have seen?   The answer, unfortunately is, it would take a lot: a whole new worldview, a whole new religion, replacing the death cults that currently reign.   For the Basques, the violence stemmed from a political ideal, but in the Middle East, it comes from leaders who claim it’s what God wants.

One of the hallmarks of what it means to be human is to recognize that death is  sacred, and to deprive someone of their life randomly,  in the name of a deity is to have gone over to the Dark Side.  Deprograming the thousands who have signed on to this bloodthirsty agenda will be the work of many years.    God help us.

Dementia and the Right to Die

If anything is writ upon the Wall of Fate, it is that the right to die will eventually become as much a part of the culture as the right to choose who to marry. Think of where we were 300 years ago: marriages were arranged by parents, women were viewed as the intellectual inferiors of men, minorities were denied basic human rights, homosexuality was utterly taboo. Today, although there is undeniably work to be done to achieve equality in each of these areas, we are well on our way to a world where each of these groups of people are accorded a status equal to the once all-powerful white male, at least in the Western World.

The right to end a pregnancy was won several decades ago, and, while not on as solid a footing as the other advances mentioned, it would be difficult to turn back the clock on that issue. Now the turn has come for the right to die.

Currently five states allow terminally-ill citizens to choose a painless, immediate death rather than wait for nature to take its course with all the agonies, both mental and physical, that accompany a lingering death. More states will surely follow in the near future as poll numbers show : 70% now support euthanasia for the terminally ill.

The next step after that will be to ensure that the right to die includes those suffering from dementia.   A moving and convincing manifesto by Canadian Gillian Bennett, “Dead at Noon,” says it all and should be required reading for all politicians and citizens weighing in on this subject. Bennett realized the road ahead for her was not a pretty one as she became more and more forgetful. “All I lose is an indefinite number of years of being a vegetable in a hospital setting, eating up the country’s money but having not the faintest idea of who I am.”   Prevented by law from seeking a doctor’s help in ending her life, she took action herself with a handful of barbiturates in 2014.

Kurt Vonnegut once wrote about “Ethical Suicide Parolors” in one of his futuristic short stories, “Welcome to the Monkey House,”  a comfortable setting with support from professionals and family on the day of the last chapter of our lives.  That’s what we need now, so that anyone who can sense the approach of a debilitating dementia can opt for a death with dignity.

Of course there are potential problems, but the good that would result far outweighs any of them.   And if you believe that God doesn’t want us to take our own life, the question then becomes, how do you know that? and would God rather have us live for months and years without even knowing our own names, knowing nothing but how to chew food?

The Death of Immortality

A young person living in a society that’s safe and secure doesn’t think about death that much. In fact, there’s a feeling when you’re young, that death is a long way off, that it can’t touch you.   Yeah, sure you know it will at some point, but you don’t need to worry about it because there are so many people in your family older than you—they’re your cushion, your buffer between the guy with the scythe and you. More likely than not he’ll be paying  them a visit before he turns his empty eyes in your direction. Because Death seems so far away, with so many in line ahead of you, a healthy young person quite rightly focuses on the long life stretching before them and attains what could almost be called a feeling of immortality.

And then your great-grandparents die, then your grandparents one-by-one, and finally your parents and their brothers and sisters. All of those members of the older generations succumb to the inevitable until no one stands between you and the grave. You’re face-to-face with that fellow with the grinning skull, la Camarde as the French call him—the one without a nose.  He is holding an hourglass  in your direction and there’s a lot more sand in the bottom than in the top.

The Germans are a melancholy people and also good at coming up with jawbreaking words to describe what otherwise defies description, words like Schadenfreude, Weltanschauung, Wanderlust.  To designate this arrival at the gateway to our final decades the German language gives us Unsterblichkeitstod—“The Death of Immortality”—a word, that captures this disquieting realization perfectly.*

With the passing of my father this week after 99 years of healthy living and unfailing memory, I find I can’t get that word out of my mind.  Time to face it. You’re not going to make it out alive.   Dad anchored our whole family’s lives for what seemed like forever and now reality has shifted.


Dig out that old copy of “Death Be Not Proud” or the Bible or whatever philosophy does it for you,… you can’t put it off any more.

*Benn Schott created this word for his book  Schottenfreude.

The Power of Death

Amid the trivialities of our day-to-day life comes that force that slices through it all, grabs you by the throat and brings you to your knees—Death.

With the passing of one of my dearest friends, the power of Death once again overwhelms the Everyday, leaving that gaping hole in the universe.  The mind spins uncontrollably… lost…..gone… Grief floods our very being and saps our strength.  What now?… How can we come to terms with it? …The finality of existence, that feeling of despair slipping into hopelessness… How do we stand up to Death’s power?

The Church has an answer. The Stoics have another. The Hindu sages take refuge in maya—it’s all illusion.

Believe what you can, as Darwin told us. But what’s important is the Universal, that in its extreme sorrow, Death brings us to the same place as extreme joy– the transcendent dimension of existence where we can connect with the Divine.  Through meditation, through prayer if you like, by connecting with others through rituals, the madness of Death becomes something sacred. We circle the wagons, link arms with survivors and feed on the memories of those we loved.  We find our humanity in loss.

But it’s still hard.