Recent Nobel winners echo King’s wise words

Recent Nobel winners echo King’s wise words

Fresno Bee, January 14, 2012

Martin Luther King was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964.  In December of 2011, the Peace Prize was awarded to three women: Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the President of Liberia; Leyma Gbowee, a peace activist from Liberia; and Tawakkol Karman, a leader of the Yemeni version of the Arab Spring.  These women represent the power of women’s movements for peace in Africa and the Middle East.  In their Nobel Prize speeches, they each cited Martin Luther King as a source of hope and inspiration.

Gbowee’s speech recounted the terror of war in Liberia, which included rape and sexual abuse.  Despite the horrors she had witnessed, she remained hopeful that nonviolence can improve things.  She quoted King’s words: “Violence never brings permanent peace. It solves no social problem; it merely creates new and more complicated ones.”

Sirleaf spoke of the need for continued expansion of democracy and women’s rights.  She said, “I urge my sisters, and my brothers, not to be afraid. Be not afraid to denounce injustice, though you may be outnumbered. Be not afraid to seek peace, even if your voice may be small. Be not afraid to demand peace.”  And she cited King’s optimistic idea that “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

Karman is the youngest person, and the first Arab woman, to be awarded the Peace Prize.  In her speech she said that King’s idea of “the art of living in harmony” remains the most important thing we need to master. She expressed her hope as follow: “Mankind’s feeling of responsibility to create a decent life and make it worth living with dignity has always been stronger than the will to kill life. Despite great battles, the survival of the human race is the clearest expression of mankind’s yearning for reconstruction, not for destruction, for progress, not for regression and death.” Despite obstacles in Yemen and elsewhere, she foresees  “a humane, prosperous and generous history full of love and fraternity.”

The spirit of hope in the face of violence and injustice is central to King’s message.  In his last sermon in Memphis on April 3, 1968, he acknowledged the threats against him.  But he explained that the struggle for justice was more important than his own life.  King concluded: “Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will.”  He was killed the next day at age 39.

In that last sermon, he explained how moral courage works by retelling the story of the Good Samaritan.  In Jesus’ original parable, two people—a priest and a Levite—walk past a wounded man on the road to Jericho.  Only the Samaritan stops and helps.

King suggests that the first two men were too afraid to stop.  The road to Jericho was dangerous—a prime place to be ambushed.  The priest and the Levite may have been concerned about their own safety, possibly worrying that the injured man was faking it in order to take advantage.

King explains that they may have thought, “If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?”  But the Samaritan reversed the question: “If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?”

This reversal is the key.  When we stop asking, “what will happen to me?” and start asking, “what will happen to him?” our perspective is changed. Suspicion is replaced by care.  Fear is transformed into hope.  And self-interest becomes compassion.

It is hazardous to help others and to speak out against injustice.  Evil dictators crush resistance; and bad guys do take advantage.  But people who risk doing good, tend to experience the world in a hopeful, optimistic way.

In his own Nobel Prize speech, King admitted that “those who pioneer in the struggle for peace and freedom will still face uncomfortable jail terms and painful threats of death.”  But in the end King says that it is possible to see “a tunnel of hope through the dark mountain of despair.”  The fact that this message is being shared in places like Yemen and Liberia is good reason to remain hopeful.

Let’s Raise a Glass for Those Days Gone By

Let’s Raise a Glass for Those Days Gone By

Fresno Bee, December 31, 2011

New Year’s Eve is a time for nostalgia and regret.  It is a time for remembrance about time gone past.  It is a time for dreaming abouttomorrow.  And it is a time for that old drinking song, “Auld Lang Syne.”

We sing that song at New Year’s, even though most of us don’t really know what it’s Scottish words really mean.  The song goes: “For auld lang syne, my dear, for auld lang syne, we’ll take a cup of kindness yet, for auld lang syne.”  Imagine raising your cup and swaying to the music, as you sing it.  The cup is raised in a toast to the old times—the “old long since,” as it might be translated.  We drink a salute to days gone by.

New Year’s Eve is for reminiscing: about both the good times and the bad.  We celebrate our new friends and mourn those we’ve lost.  We count our blessings and chew over our failures.  Along the way, we might cook up some resolutions for the next year: ways of ensuring that the future is more satisfying and less disappointing.

Life is not, of course, without disappointment.  And New Year’s Day often begins with a disillusioning hangover.  A groggy morning is the bitter-sweet remembrance of the previous night’s elation.  A hangover reminds us that no joy comes without pain.

The bleary-eyed melancholy of the morning after also reminds us that we are usually not very good at judging our own future interests. Concerns about tomorrow’s wooziness are rarely considered in deciding whether to get drunk tonight.  That is why we borrow money, overeat, and fail to plan for retirement.  If we were rational about these things, there would be no regrets.  And we would keep our New Year’s resolutions.

Mark Twain mocked this human-all-too-human tendency in a column he wrote in 1863 for the New Year’s Day edition of the Virginia City newspaper. “Now is the accepted time to make your regular good resolutions.  Next week you can begin paving hell with them as usual.  Yesterday, everybody smoked his last cigar, took his last drink, and swore his last oath… Thirty days from now, we shall have cast our reformation to the winds.”

Twain was not opposed to drinking or to smoking.  He is often pictured with a big cigar in hand.  He said, “It’s easy to quit smoking, I’ve done it a hundred times.”  Twain routinely mocked the advocates of temperance, who were lobbying to regulate alcohol consumption.  He seemed to think that drinking made it possible to deal with life’s tragedies.  He once remarked: “sometimes too much to drink is barely enough.”

Twain is not alone extolling the virtues of drink.  Human beings have been consuming alcohol and other intoxicants for millennia.  The ancient Egyptians brewed beer.  Hammurabi’s Code includes regulations for tavern owners.  And, of course, Jesus turned water into wine.

This last point is not insignificant.  The origin of religion may have something to do with intoxication.  The human mind craves varied and altered states of consciousness.  We dance, we play, we sing, and we get drunk.  And we willingly suffer from our excesses.  If the original ecstasy is great enough, we can easily accept the suffering of the morning after.

One of Plato’s most interesting works—the Symposium—represents a wine-drenched drinking party.  In fact, the Symposium takes place on the day after a previous night’s round of drinking: most of the participants are already hung-over.  The topic for discussion at this party is love.  Love is another sort of intoxication that we crave, even if it costs us significant suffering.

Plato also links love and drunkenness to wisdom. Drink loosens tongues.  It allows the artistic imagination to wander.  It helps people fall in love.  It lubricates philosophical discussions.  And it opens the memory to those days gone by.

Yes there are dangers here: drunken driving and alcoholism can both be deadly.  Some form of moderation is in order: there is a right time and a right way to get drunk.  We know that there may be hell to pay tomorrow.  But for tonight, let’s raise a cup of kindness for those days of auld lang syne.

Giving, Receiving Create Complex Social Dance

Giving, Receiving Create Complex Social Dance

Fresno Bee, December 17, 2011

Christmas is the Superbowl of giving and receiving.  All of our social and interpersonal skills are needed to give and receive well.  We can learn a lot about social life, by carefully observing the details of the annual Christmas potlatch.  And we can learn about ourselves by considering how we deal with giving and receiving.

Gift giving is a form of communication.  Gifts send social messages.  A perfect gift is a sign of care and thoughtfulness.  A great gift shows that the other person really understands you.  Although we say that it’s the thought that counts, inappropriate gifts are expressions of thoughtlessness. What message is being delivered when you give an alcoholic uncle a bottle of booze or a conservative niece a subscription to your favorite liberal news magazine?

Good givers are perceptive interpreters of social reality.  It takes considerable finesse to figure out who should get what, in our complex social world.  Do you, for example, give a gift to the mother of the man you just divorced, when she comes to pick up her grandchildren?  It takes a lot of tact to negotiate these sorts of situations.

The Christmas gift ritual is subtle game of secrets and excitement.  We keep these secrets wrapped in bows—to be given at the right time and in the right way.  Wonderful gifts can be ruined by an over-enthusiastic or half-hearted presentation.  Children can be forgiven for spilling the beans or for ripping into a gift too soon.  But adults are expected to display a subtle balance of eager enthusiasm and cool nonchalance.

There are a lot of details to attend to.  Sometimes a gift-receipt is appropriate.  But it is usually considered tacky to leave the price tag on. Homemade gifts can be charming—but some people will think you are a cheapskate.  What about an expensive gift: is it too flashy or over-the-top? And is “re-gifting” allowed?  Probably, as long as you don’t tell the original giver or the new recipient.

Gift-giving relationships are fraught with social significance.  Consider the annual Christmas card list.  When do you drop or add someone from your list?  And those newsy holiday letters are subject to interpretation: are you bragging too much about your fabulous life or complaining too much about your deteriorating health?  Should you write a personal note to a casual acquaintance?  Or can you just send the family picture, without a note?  These choices convey social messages.

There is also an art to being a gracious receiver.  We need to know how to say thanks.  Expressions of gratitude allow the act of giving to be successfully completed.  And you need to fake gratitude when necessary.  Even phony gratefulness is important, as a sign that the gift has been received.  In the modern world, it is difficult to figure out what counts as an appropriate thanks.  Is a text message or phone call sufficient?  Or should you write a good old-fashioned thank-you note?

If this sounds difficult, that’s because social life is difficult.  Giving and receiving are complex social practices.  Generous givers and gracious receivers are social geniuses.  They negotiate social situations with grace and style, nimbly imagining the other person’s attitudes, expectations, and desires.

The Greek philosopher Aristotle recognized that generosity was in the middle between stinginess and wastefulness.  It is wrong to give to little—but it is also wrong to give too much.  The key for Aristotle is figuring out how to give the right amount, to the right person, at the right time, in the right way.  This takes careful reflection and lots of practice.  The same can be said for receiving: we need to carefully practice graciousness and gratitude.  The key is to be mindful, thoughtful, and aware of the complexities of the social game.

No one is born knowing how to give well or to receive graciously.  All of this is learned behavior.  Our children work on it throughout the year—at birthday parties and elsewhere.  Adults participate in acts of giving and receiving every day.  We give each other our time, our attention, and the small favors that lubricate social life.  Christmas crystallizes this for us, as a ritual reminder that human life is a complex dance of giving and receiving.

You’re a Foul One, Shopping Season

You’re a Foul One, Shopping Season

Fresno Bee, December 3, 2011

I watched “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” the other day with my children on television.  Every fan of the cartoon knows that the Grinch’s heart grows three sizes when he realizes, “Christmas doesn’t come in a store.”

But this soft Seussian message was drowned out by the ads that interrupted the show.  Nearly every commercial was promoting Christmas shopping!  Even my kids noted the irony.  The network was using Seuss to sell us the idea that Christmas really does come in a store.  It is easy to feel Grinchy at times like these.

Consider the odd degeneration of the Thanksgiving weekend.  Thanksgiving day is overshadowed by the next several days of shopping.  These shopping days now have names that can seem like something from Seuss: Black Friday, Small Business Saturday, and Cyber Monday.  This silliness got serious this year, when Black Friday frenzy turned bloody, as sleep-deprived shoppers competed for door-buster ads with elbows, fists, and pepper-spray.

Even the President got into the spirit of the shopping season. Obama went shopping with his daughters on “Small Business Saturday,” buying books at a local bookstore.  He said, “This is Small Business Saturday.  So we’re out here supporting small business.”  Holiday family time is now oddly connected to a patriotic duty to go shopping.

Shopping is an American hobby.  We shop when we are bored or lonely.  And some shoppers treat it as a competitive sport, vying for bargains.  Or they try to be the first to buy something, even if that means standing in line in the middle of the night.  This is not just confined to Black Fridaybedlam.  Shoppers camp out for new video games and the latest iphone.

Our culture appears to be built upon Grinch-like values such as envy, greed, and—to use a good old-fashioned word—covetousness.  It used to be a sin to covet things in this way.  But now it is built right in to the holiday season.  Children are encouraged to give Santa a list of what they desire. Adults write up holiday wish lists.  And many of us use the holidays as an excuse to buy ourselves things—even going through the ruse of wrapping these “gifts” and putting them under the tree.

Meanwhile, everyone is trying to get a deal.  From the housing bubble to “Antiques Road Show,” it seems that we remain obsessed with finding bargains and turning a profit.  We are fascinated by stories of “extreme couponing.”  And the Seussian term “shopaholic” has entered our vocabularies.

“Shopaholism” can be a serious problem.  A syndrome called “Compulsive Buying Disorder” afflicts about one out of twenty of us.  A more technical term for this condition also rings Seussian: “Oniomania,” which literally means “maniacal buying.”  This occurs when shopping becomes a primary way to deal with stress, boredom, and anxiety.  As with gambling addiction, a downward spiral can result for the shopping maniac: as debt increases, anxiety increases, and the desire to shop grows.

We might think that obsessive shopping and compulsive buying are peculiar to modern capitalist societies.  But Biblical writers routinely condemned covetousness.  Even a Roman philosopher such as Seneca understood the problem.  Seneca thought that the inordinate desire to buy things can leave us unhappy and indebted, especially when hucksters try to make a buck by manipulating our desires.  He cautioned that we must “see how much we must pay for that which we crave.”

For Stoics such as Seneca, the cost of owning things is usually more than they are worth.  Our craving for new things and the desire to make a good deal can leave us deceived, miserable, and indebted.  Seneca concluded, “We should belong to ourselves, if only these things did not belong to us.”

You don’t have to be a Stoic sage or a Christian saint to understand that many of the things we buy end up owning us.  Just ask anyone who got swept up in the housing bubble and left underwater.  And most kids understand the message of “The Grinch.”  The Who’s down in Whoville didn’t mind that the Grinch had just stolen all of their Christmas loot.  They knew that Christmas was about the community they shared.  And they recognized that Christmas doesn’t come in a store.

Violence Can Move Bodies, But Not the Spirit

Violence Can Move Bodies, But Not the Spirit

Fresno Bee, November 18, 2011

Martin Luther King thought that nonviolent civil protest created a “tension in the mind.”  This tension is the result of seeing good people jailed and brutal power unleashed upon passive resisters.  King’s insights help explain reaction to recent police brutality against Occupy protesters.

Police have used rubber bullets, stun grenades, pepper spray, and clubs to break up Occupy encampments across the country.  An Iraq war veteran was injured in Oakland,  An 84-year old grandmother was pepper sprayed in Seattle.  And at UC Berkeley, cops in riot gear jabbed students with nightsticks.

In the Berkeley case, officials defended police action in public statements that do indicate a certain tension in the mind.  The UC Berkeley police captain explained (in an article in the San Francisco Chronicle), “the individuals who linked arms and actively resisted, that in itself is an act of violence.  I understand that many students may not think that, but linking arms in a human chain when ordered to step aside is not a nonviolent protest.”

Robert Birgeneau, The UC Berkeley Chancellor, explained this more fully in a letter to the campus.  “It is unfortunate that some protesters chose to obstruct the police by linking arms and forming a human chain to prevent the police from gaining access to the tents. This is not non-violent civil disobedience. By contrast, some of the protesters chose to be arrested peacefully… They did not resist arrest or try physically to obstruct the police officers’ efforts to remove the tents. These protesters were acting in the tradition of peaceful civil disobedience, and we honor them.”

Although the Chancellor invoked our tradition of civil disobedience, he appears to have forgotten the power of the images of police violence from the Civil Rights era.  Police who strike unarmed, nonviolent protestors are usually on the wrong side of history.

Violence is effective in the short term.  Police were able to clear protesters out in Oakland, Seattle, and Berkeley.  The philosopher Hannah Arendt explained, “Out of the barrel of a gun grows the most effective command, resulting in the most instant and perfect obedience.”  Violence does move bodies.  But it cannot move the spirit.

Violence does not prove anything about justice or truth.  King explained, “in the long run of history might does not make right and the power of the sword cannot conquer the power of the spirit.”  In fact, violence can provoke a spirit of rebellion in the hearts of those who are bullied.  And thus violence tends to escalate, as those who are harassed begin to push back.

Violence and nonviolence are slippery concepts.  We can use the term “violence” metaphorically to describe storms and emotions.  And some people speak of structural violence—which is the tendency of a system to harm people through racism or oppression.  But violence is usually understood as harmful physical force intentionally applied against the will of some victim.

It seems clear that on this definition, the police have been violent.  When cops strike students with clubs or pepper spray old women, it is obvious that there is intent to cause physical harm.  Protesters who link arms do resist police power.  But linking arms is nonviolent because it does not intend to cause physical harm.

Occupy protesters have invoked the idea of structural violence, claiming that the system is set up in a way that harms the majority.  When the police attack peaceful protesters with batons and pepper spray, one suspects that they may be right.

The protestors at Berkeley, for example, were trying to call attention to the problem of education in our state.  Tuition keeps increasing. Classes are cancelled or jammed to overflowing.  And students graduate with large debts and few opportunities.  Students are beginning to push back against a system that is failing them.  But linking arms in protest is not violence, despite what the Berkeley Chancellor said.

Some people may think that it is better to clear the tents and end the protests quickly, hoping that the structural problems will go away.  But attacking the protesters won’t solve our problems.  And it is wrong to suggest that the police are somehow justified in assaulting those who are directing our attention to these problems.

With 7 Billion of us, Can We Keep Buying Nonstop?

With 7 Billion of us, Can We Keep Buying Nonstop?

Fresno Bee, November 5, 2011

It is difficult to balance individual liberty with concerns of a global nature.  We want to be free to consume and reproduce.  But the choices of free individuals add up, creating significant impacts.  This is especially true now that there are 7 billion human beings on earth—a number that will grow to 10 billion by the end of the century.

We passed the 7 billion mark on Halloween.  This is a kid-friendly holiday, which makes parents glad they have children.  But it also marks the beginning of the typical American over-consumption calendar.  Once the Halloween candy is gone, we turn to Thanksgiving gluttony and then on to Christmas overindulgence.  Imagine the environmental impact of 2 or 3 billion more people gorging themselves as we do every year.

Ecologist Madhu Katti, from Fresno State’s Biology Department put it this way in a recent post on his blog, “A Leaf Warbler’s Gleanings”: “There are many reasons to be worried about the consequences of having so many of us crowding this pale blue dot of a planet.  Especially if so many of us are keen to continue spending billions of dollars on seemingly cheap plastic junk.”  Common sense tells us that as population grows and consumption increases, we will hit a limit.

This point has been known, at least since the time of Thomas Malthus, the 18th Century economist.  Malthus is famous for arguing that as populations grow, they will suffer a dieback caused by environmental pressures.  He is infamous for hinting that it is wrong to support poor people since aid to the poor increases population in counter-productive ways.

So far, we have found technological solutions that have helped us avoid the grim Malthusian limit and reach the 7 billion mark: increased agricultural productivity, new sources of power, better medicine, etc.  But there may be a limit to technological solutions.  And as population and consumption grow, the Malthusian limit looms.

So what can we do?  Policies that use coercion to prevent people from reproducing are immoral.  The right to reproduce is very basic.  It would be wrong for the state to license reproduction or require sterilization.  The morally acceptable response to population pressure is to increase each individual’s sense of responsibility for reproduction.  Perhaps we could do the same for consumption.

This individualistic approach is, however, vexed by the problem of diffusion of responsibility.  When there are 7 billion other people involved, my own choices appear to be infinitesimally insignificant.  It is odd to demand that I should consider global population and environmental issues when thinking about my reproductive life or shopping patterns.

So where does that leave us?  Perhaps it helps to return to Malthus.  Malthus thought that one solution to the population problem was “moral restraint.”  He defined this as celibacy until marriage and refraining from marriage until one is ready to support a family.  Not only would this help to moderate population growth but Malthus also thought it would be good for women, since it would prevent the “evils and unhappiness” that arise from “promiscuous intercourse.”

Malthus was on the right track here, despite his prudish sense of sexual morality.  The key to population pressure is to find ways to empower and educate women, including giving them more control of their own reproductive lives.  Professor Katti explained it to me this way, “the empowerment of women and reduced infant mortality are the key factors” in slowing population growth.  Women choose to have fewer children when there is “greater economic security, better health, and some measure of control over their futures.”  This has helped to lower birth rates in industrialized countries as well as in places like Bangladesh.

So far, so good.  The further problem is that despite lowered birthrates, we continue to consume loads of cheap plastic junk.  Professor Katti continued, “we have figured out how to lower birth rates, but are far from tackling the wasteful consumerist lifestyle that is at the root of so many of our environmental problems.”

Is it possible that some version of “moral restraint” could work when it comes to consumption?  Instead of focusing on promiscuous intercourse, it may be time to begin thinking about how to limit promiscuous consumption.

Occupy movement about sense of unfairness

‘Occupy’ movement about sense of unfairness

Fresno Bee, Oct. 21, 2011

The “Occupy Wall Street” movement is an expression of resentment about inequality. The motto of the movement – “We are the 99%” – shows this. The top 1% of Americans hold half of the nation’s wealth. Corporate CEOs are doing well, while wages stagnate, hours are cut and debt increases for the rest of us.

It is not surprising that these inequalities cause resentment. Resentment is about fairness. And things seem unfair to many Americans today.

Some inequalities are fair: such as inequalities that result from differences in talent or expertise. We want the pilot to fly the plane, not the flight attendant. Resulting inequality of income is fair – so long as it is reasonable and leaves the flight attendant doing well. In a similar way, inequalities resulting from certain genetic differences can be fair. Tall and fast kids get to play on the basketball team. But fairness means that there should be other opportunities for other kids.

Genetic differences can produce unfair inequalities. Racial discrimination and sexual inequality are unfair because racial and gender differences are irrelevant to performance. It would be unfair if women were not allowed to be pilots, for example, as was once the case.

Individuals do not earn the advantages or disadvantages of their genetic differences – these differences are a matter of luck. The advantage of inherited wealth is also a matter of luck. Rich kids don’t earn the advantages of wealth: They are just fortunate. Individual initiative does matter in the long run. Poor kids can do well, despite their relative disadvantage; and rich kids can fail to achieve. But a privileged starting point will give you an advantage. And this seems unfair – because neither the poor kid nor the rich kid has earned their relative difference.

This is not to say that we should engage in “class warfare” to make rich kids miserable. In a certain sense, that would be unfair as well, since parents should be free to help their own children excel. Rather, the point is that poor children should have fair opportunities for wellbeing. The drive for equality is not about bringing the privileged down. Instead it is about lifting the underprivileged up and providing a fair starting place. Women should be able to fly planes and poor kids should have decent schools.

The basic idea here is equality of opportunity. This idea was defended by John Rawls, the most important political philosopher of the past century. Rawls said that inequalities are justified only when they benefit the least advantaged. The basic idea is that as the rich get richer, the poor should also do better. When this happens, resentment diminishes because even the poor will agree that they benefit from the system.

This idea undergirds our graduated income tax system: as the rich get richer, their tax dollars help poor kids in poor schools. This creates equality of opportunity and a sense of fairness. For Rawls, the aim is to “improve the long-term expectations of the least favored.”

Presumably, most Americans agree with this idea. It is a basic value in the Christian tradition. In the parable of the sheep and the goats, for example, Jesus says that we have an obligation to the “least of these” among us: the sick, the hungry, the imprisoned.

But one wonders whether we are actually fulfilling that obligation. The “least favored” includes a growing number of unemployed, disenfranchised, imprisoned and indebted people. Unemployment hovers around 10% (15% here in Fresno County). Twenty percent of American homeowners are underwater in their mortgages (closer to 45% here in Fresno). The median student loan debt for recent college graduates is $20,000 – without good job prospects. And 1 in 100 adults are in prison – the highest incarceration rate in the world.

Statistics such as these remind us that we are not improving the long-term expectations of the least favored. And this is what is fueling the resentment of the “Occupy” movement.

The Occupy protesters have not offered much in terms of concrete policy initiatives. It is not clear what we should do to promote fairness in a dysfunctional economy. But first we should get clear about our shared conception of justice. The Occupy movement is reminding us of the basic idea of fairness. This is not the only principle of justice: liberty matters too. But it is important to focus our concern on the “least” among us.

Community service can transcend religions

Community service can transcend religions

Fresno Bee, Oct. 07, 2011

According to Gandhi, “religions are different roads converging to the same point.” This is a nice idea. But it is most likely false. There may be some common values shared by religious people. But the details diverge — often in quite radical ways. Catholics, Hindus, Muslims, Mormons and Jews will never agree about fundamental metaphysical questions: about the nature of God or the soul. And if we include atheists in the mix, it is unlikely that these roads will ever converge.

And yet, there may be a common path that we can walk together for a while, despite our differences. One common path is community service. Most religions stress altruism. And atheists recognize the ethical importance of working for the common good. Although there are different ways of providing service, it is rare to find a person who does not think it is good to help others.

It is important to understanding that despite our differences about fundamental things, we live together here and now. We drive the same roads, use the same resources and make our livings together. And our children will inherit this world from us. Productive relationships among diverse religious people can develop around shared interest in our common world.

This is the idea behind President Barack Obama’s Interfaith and Community Service Campus Challenge. This initiative aims to bring people of different faiths together to engage in a joint service project. The White House website describes this project as “an important way to build understanding between different communities and contribute to the common good.”

Fresno State is participating in this interfaith campus challenge. The project will begin with an Interfaith Student Discussion Panel as part of the Ethics Center’s Conference on “Ethics, Religion, and Civil Discourse.” On Thursday, a diverse group of students will discuss how their own religious traditions understand community service, and they will begin brainstorming a joint service project.

This joint service project is being coordinated by the Jan & Bud Richter Center for Community Engagement and Service-Learning, under the leadership of Chris Fiorentino. According to Fiorentino, a substantial amount of research indicates that service-learning works to promote greater cross-cultural understanding. Fiorentino says that people “find common ground through service.” Fiorentino recognizes that there are some issues that are intractable. It may be impossible for diverse religious people to agree about an issue such as abortion. But he maintains that there is quite a lot of room for consensus around issues such as education, safe neighborhoods and hunger.

A joint service project aimed at one of these topics can help to show that despite our differences, we have much in common. Fiorentino points out that we often over-emphasize our differences. One reason for this is a sort of self-absorption. It is easy to stereotype other people and their divergent points of view, especially when you only associate with people like yourself. Fiorentino argues that working on a joint service project can help people move beyond their narrow perspectives and learn to see “that there is something bigger than their own point of view.” That bigger thing is the community itself.

It is obvious that community service is not a panacea that will cure religious tension. Atheists and theists will still disagree about the existence of God, even if they swing hammers together. And Catholics and Mormons will still disagree about the teachings of Jesus, even if they work together to teach kids to read. But it is important to learn that, despite our deep differences, we can work together on projects of common concern.

Gandhi’s idea that all religions are fundamentally the same is hopeful — but misleading. If religions are fundamentally the same, then it is very difficult to understand the depth of religious conflict. Instead of hoping for a final convergence of religious belief, perhaps the most we can hope for is to learn to admit our differences while focusing on those values we share. The idea of being of service to the community may be one of those universally shared values.

A worthy goal — neutrality without censorship

A worthy goal — neutrality without censorship

Fresno Bee, September 24, 2011

A math teacher in San Diego County, Bradley Johnson, hung posters on his classroom wall that displayed religiously oriented statements from American history. The posters included phrases such as “In God We Trust” and “God shed his grace on thee.” Johnson claimed that he intended this as a patriotic celebration of America’s heritage.

The school district removed the posters, claiming that, “because they were taken out of context and very large” these phrases “became a promotion of a particular viewpoint that might make students who didn’t share that viewpoint uncomfortable.” This month, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in support of the school district. It found that Johnson’s display was not “neutral”– as required under the First Amendment. The court agreed that the school district was enforcing “neutrality” by removing Johnson’s posters.

Neutrality is an important ideal. Religious dissidents came to America in order to escape the power of the state-sponsored churches of Europe. Today, there is more diversity of belief, with growing numbers of nonbelievers and non-Christians. We need state neutrality with regard to religion.

But we should be careful that as we pursue neutrality, we don’t end up stifling debate. This case can be understood as a call for improved public discussions of religion. It is obvious that genuine philosophical debate is not conducted by hanging posters on the wall. We need to find better ways to discuss our most fundamental differences.

I discussed this case with Doug Fraleigh, chairman of the communication department at Fresno State. Professor Fraleigh — an expert on freedom-ofexpression issues — agrees that Johnson’s posters violated the First Amendment. But Fraleigh is concerned with a growing trend toward government regulation of speech. He worries that the court seems to think that “teachers are paid to convey the government’s message.” Fraleigh said, “While some control of classroom speech can be warranted, excellent teaching is an art which cannot flourish when lessons are subject to inflexible government control.”

According to Fraleigh, this decision extends a precedent in which the government attempts to “broadly regulate government employee speech.”

The court reasoned that the government can limit an employee’s speech at work, so long as it does not interfere with that employee’s right as a citizen to speak freely outside of work. Fair enough: Johnson remains free to discuss his religious views after work.

But there is a silencing effect, nonetheless, when teachers fear that they will run afoul of the authorities.

More extensive academic freedom — along with more civil public discourse — could be part of the solution. A truly open and tolerant discussion of religion would be useful in our diverse society. We would have to listen to one another and learn about other points of view. And we would have to understand our own beliefs well enough to defend them.

This may be too much to ask for in an elementary school context. But if teachers felt free to discuss religion in an open and inquiring fashion, school would be a more lively place: a place in which important ideas are considered and defended, instead of simply ignored in the name of neutrality. Such lively exchanges — if they were conducted with a genuine spirit of inquiry — would open student’s minds, stimulate curiosity and create a love of learning.

The philosopher John Locke said, “Truth would do well enough, if she were once left to shift for herself.” But our tendency sometimes points in the other direction. Our justifiable fear of the establishment of religion can lead us to limit freedom of discussion. The danger of this approach is that it prevents us from engaging in those sorts of vigorous debates that help us understand what we believe and why we believe it.

Johnson’s posters may violate the spirit of the First Amendment. But they are also weak as teaching devices. We need open-minded and inclusive discussion of our diversity, not simplistic posters and competing bumper stickers. In our increasingly diverse world, we need more and better discussions of religion and our religious differences.

Reflecting on Sept 11

Silence will offer space to reflect on 9/11

By Andrew Fiala

Fresno Bee 2011-09-10

Memorial activities dedicated to 9/11 have continued to create controversy. Critics on the right complained that when President Obama called for national service in honor of 9/11, he was slipping “socialism” into Patriot Day. And on the left, critics worry that the name “Patriot Day” is itself too nationalistic and militaristic.

This year the dispute is over the place of prayer in the dedication of the 9/11 memorial in New York City. The plans for the event do not include public prayer. In response, the Family Research Council has circulated a petition that concludes: “This nation needs prayer more than politics.” But public prayer is political. Public prayers would inevitably include some and exclude others.

All public speech is political. Perhaps what we need is more silence and less squabbling. The 9/11 ceremony in New York will, in fact, include several moments of silence. This is the best way to proceed in a diverse society in which religion is politicized. Indeed, silent reflection is welcome, in a culture that is filled with speech. In silence, we can sort out our own thoughts — apart from the incessant bickering and chattering of public life.

Our desire to give speeches and offer public words of prayer is connected with our need to make sense of things. We want a story in which events have some meaning. But our stories are tendentious. We always reconstruct the past based upon our present concerns. Over time, as our memories fade, we establish memorial rituals, as an attempt to preserve the past against the corrosive power of time. But these ritual memorials are partial and biased. They skate on the surface, while lacking the complexity of serious history.

For several years, the images and emotion of 9/11 were seared into our memories. Those who were directly involved in the horrors of that day may never be able to forget. But for many, the memories fade. And events that were once so vivid, now become episodes in a story that is being told to the next generation, which has no living memory of the event.

Ralph Waldo Emerson explored the problem of memory in his essay, “Experience.” Emerson was troubled by the fact that he could no longer feel the same grief for his dead son as he did in the days and months immediately after his son had died. Emerson worried that forgetting was disloyal to the past. He concluded: “The only thing grief has taught me, is to know how shallow it is.”

But forgetting is natural and normal. It is healthy to turn the page and allow the past to become a story. And we should admit that these stories cannot touch the reality of what is past. Even atrocities are forgotten and we are left with stone memorials and ritualized ceremonies. Emerson said that things “slip through our fingers when we clutch hardest.” The more we try to hold on to the fading past, the less we grasp it.

As we pause to remember 9/11, it is important to recognize the complexity of the process of remembrance. It is easy to be swept away by maudlin spectacles and sentimental speeches. There is pleasure in the emotional excess of public ceremony. It is comforting to belong to a community that remembers and grieves together. We need these ceremonies to reassure us and to express solidarity with those who are still suffering from trauma.

We want to belong, to share a common story, to celebrate a common past, and mourn a common loss. But somehow public speeches don’t go deep enough. The staged emotion of public ceremony is too shallow to reach the reality of a past that is slowly fading away. And oratory offered in commemoration is always colored by present purposes. The controversy about prayer at the 9/11 event is, after all, as much about the politics of the present as it is about the past.

There is a time for speeches and for prayer. But silence is also useful. And we don’t have nearly enough of it. As Thoreau — Emerson’s disciple — put it, “silence is the universal refuge.” Silence allows us to think on our own terms, outside of the din of public life. And silence offers a common refuge for each of us, whatever our religious or political inclination.