My Weekend of Memory and Prophecy

Flyer for 50th-year gathering of Vietnam War protesters: MLK, Dr Spock, etc

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Racism, Vietnam, Climate Chaos -- Or Loving Eco-Social Justice?

This past weekend, I spent Friday evening and all day Saturday in a gathering of about 700 aging veterans of the peace movement that opposed the US War against Vietnam, along with much much younger people who came to learn the history of time past and the lessons for the future.

Friday evening/ Saturday is in Jewish spirit and practice the time of Shabbat  -- a joyful, restful, and reflective pause. What I was doing during that time last weekend was certainly not the traditional or conventional practice of Shabbat. Yet it felt to me remarkably like the shared community, story-telling, laughter, remembering, singing, self-reflection, hopeful gazing toward a better future – – that make up the deepest Shabbat.

Shabbat, when we read an ancient text and give it new meaning for our own unfolding lives, teaches us the delicate relation between memory and prophecy.

Not the reductionist notion that prophecy is about predicting the future, but the profound sense that prophecy is always "If" – – always offering us the choices that emerge from our decisions. Making clear the paths that lead to life or death.

Our gathering drew on the past of fifty years ago in order to light up the path, the choices, that lie before us. In a traditional Shabbat, we are likely to hear Torah lift up that extraordinary moment when the Breath of Life inspired (“breathed into”) slaves who rose up against Pharaoh. The moment when the Breath of Life became a Hurricane of Change, blowing open the Red Sea to clear a path for a band of runaway slave – and blowing the Sea closed again, dissolving Pharaoh's tyranny into its waves.  We read this not as dusty chronicle but as incitement.  Insightment.

We read in order to learn the myriad lessons of how the powerful behave when they become addicted to their power, and how the disempowered can transform our own lives and the whole world around us.

Every time we reread that ancient transformation, we see its patterns in a different light; we learn each time to make it possible again.

And that is what we did last weekend. We drew on our memories of one of the most extraordinary moments in our history to explore how to walk into our future --more freely, more justly, bringing more healing to our wounded world.

We gathered because this year, this spring, is the 50th anniversary of the first major demonstrations against the Vietnam War. (See attached flyer with photo of demonstration including Dr. Martin Luther King & Dr.  Benjamin Spock.) And this was only one of these 50-year commemorations. The one most widely publicized was the 50th anniversary of the marches for voting rights in Selma, Alabama. Thousands marched again across the Edmund Pettis Bridge where police had mauled and beaten hundreds of Americans demonstrating for the voting rights of black folk.

Have the police stopped doing Selma, stopped beating and killing unarmed Black men? Hardly! So thousands came this year not only to remember that moment but to give new focus and energy to the “Black Lives Matter" movement that was then springing up all around America, and has since grown even more in the wake of the Baltimore Uprising

Last summer, the +50 gathering recalled and prophesied the Freedom Summer of 1964  that won voting rights for Black America at the cost of  a dozen deaths. I took part in workshops there that focused on the future --  “climate justice” –-  an issue that was not even a glimmer in 1965.

And just a month ago, I spoke at a teach-in at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, just as I had spoken there 50 years ago in the first teach-in demanding an end to the Vietnam War. This time we called the moment “Teach-In + 50: End the War against the Planet." Again we drew on our memories of our past, in order to reshape our future.

Last Friday evening, our conference – – "Vietnam: the Power of Protest" -- honored those of us who had been leaders of the antiwar movement and were now more than 80 years old. In the attached photograph you will see Marc Raskin, co-founder of the Institute for Policy Studies, and me, (in the burgundy shirt and beret) one of its founding Fellows, the two of us co-authors of the “Call to Resist Illegitimate Authority” that inspired thousands to resist the draft; Staughton Lynd, who created the Congress of Unrepresented People in the first demonstration against the war and continues to work with the white working class  for social transformation; Vivian Gornick, co-founder of Women Strike for Peace; stalwart antiwar former Congressman Ron Dellums;  Cora Weiss, philanthropist in the fullest sense – “lover of humankind” and a leader of the “Mobe” -- Mobilization Committee against the War; Rev. Richard Fernandez, exec of Clergy and Laity Concerned About Vietnam; David McReynolds, long-time leader of the War Resisters League.  Phil Donahue emcee’d; Peter Yarrow sang with his daughter Bethany and her husband cellist Rufus Cappadocia.

At other times during the 24 hours we learned from and honored Tom Hayden, Congresswoman Barbara Lee, Julian Bond, Holly Near, Danny Glover …

There were three nuggets of memory that I tried to turn toward prophecy. One was urging the activists of today, old and young, to build restful time into the rhythm of our work and lives.  “I know many of us say – the war machine doesn’t pause, the Carbon Pharaohs don’t pause, how can I pause from my work to stop them?” 

But it is exactly their refusal to pause or reflect – their insistence on unremitting domination --that makes them lethal. If we allow ourselves the time to rest, dance, sing, tell stories, reflect on our lives  -- that will keep us not only alive but lively. Even lovely. And that, I pointed out, was exactly what we were doing.

Secondly – at every opportunity, I pointed to the climate crisis (what I call “global scorching” because “warming” seems so pleasant) as the pinnacle of tyranny. Not a separate world from racial and social injustice – simply another piece of turf to tyrannize.

What connections are there between the climate crisis and the Baltimore Uprising.

The urge to dominate and subjugate is what animates the Carbon Pharaohs’ making of our air and oceans into trash dumps for CO2 and methane. That dumping damages first and worst the poor around the world —  thousands of Filipinos swept away by the most powerful typhoon in recorded history, many thousands of elders killed in a European heat wave,  hundreds of thousands dead in Syria and Africa from heat-caused famines turning into civil war.

The same urge animated the attempt to subjugate Vietnam by US military might – killing outright perhaps three million Vietnamese and almost 60,000 Americans, slowly killing many hundred thousand more Americans by spending billions on killing instead of healing, burning instead of building. Robbing them of jobs, of health, of hope.

And the same urge to subjugate still animates the imposition of poverty, the robbery of jobs, the mind-destroying miseducation, the massive incarceration, and ultimately the murder by police of America’s “trash” — the Black, Hispanic, and poor-white communities. 

There is not “social justice” on the one hand and “climate crisis" on the other, but a single eco-social injustice that is imposed upon us, a single eco-social justice that we must pursue.

Our Mother Earth responds to being choked with fiery carbon till she and   YyyyHhhhWwwwHhhh, the Breath of Life, choke. The choking, gasping Breath of Life responds to being choked by coughing out our own versions of the ancient Plagues: floods, super-typhoons, sea-levels rising, earthquakes, droughts.

And some of us human earthlings respond to being robbed of food and jobs, to being choked into asthma by coal dust and into cancer by chemicals and into smothering by police chokeholds— with rage and violence.

So at the “top” of our society’s structure of pyramidal power and at the “bottom” of subjugation and despair, the patterns of arrogance toward Earth and human earthlings are the same. Arrogant corruption at the top, despairing corruption at the bottom.

The pyramid itself is what we must transform, into the circle, the sphere, of shared empowerment. Shared life. The Globe. The Earth. (See attached flyer for the Carbon Pharaohs action that graphically shows the choice: Pyramid or Globe?)

Last weekend, some of us debated whether to call this system that tries to subdue us “capitalism,” or “neo-liberalism,“ or “neo-conservatism,” or what?

I call it Pharaoh. Top-down, cruel, arrogant, stubborn subjugation.  A story at the heart of many of our religious communities, and understood as well by many secular folk.

 (It turned out that literally as we were having this conversation, a horse named “American Pharoah” was winning the Kentucky Derby. Was this an omen? A warning? A flash of truth through the media smog? And why does this horse misspell his name?)

We can, we should, learn to respond to Pharaohs with grit and perseverance and —  by creating steadfast nonviolent resistance to their power — with the compassion that the Pharaohs do not carry when they act against us.

I am joyful that this kind of resistance has animated most of the Baltimore protests. As for the far fewer violent outbursts,  let us keep always  in mind where they began.  For as Langston Hughes in his poem “Harlem” taught: The dream deferred, the raisin left broiling in the sun, may well explode.