Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Words After Paris

Words in Response to Paris

My mantra these last few days has been that the best way to defeat ISIS is to not play the game by their rules.  They want you to be afraid and angry. When we are afraid we are paralyzed and we make bad decisions.  That is what happened to our governor when he let fear overcome his good judgment and he said he would not allow Syrian refugees into Massachusetts.

The president of France in similar fashion gave in to his anger when he turned loose the dogs of war the morning after the attacks. I am not a pacifist but I also know that the use of force ought not to be a reaction but rather a calculated action taken with thought and reflection. The use of force is also best exercised in cooperation with others and with great attention to context.

The citizens of Paris offered a wise response by going back out on the streets over the week-end.  They went to enjoy their coffee and to let their enemies know that they were not afraid. The city of lights turned on its lights. The response to terror is to be strong. Paris is a city that has known horror over the last century but the people of Paris are resilient. They are not afraid. They are strong; we are strong as well.

My friend Courtney Crummett  who works in our libraries told me a story about that famous theologian, philosopher and musician, Bob Marley that is worth taking with you this evening. There was an attempt on his life in Jamaica, but he survived though seriously wounded. He got out of bed to go to a rally calling for an end of violence.  His friends were worried about how weak he was and they told him not to go.  “You have paid your dues. This is not your fight.” But Marley said: “The people who want to make the world a worse place do not take days off. Why should I?.” He went to the rally.

Bob Marley was strong; Paris is strong. We are strong. We are not going to give in to our fear or to our anger. We are going to be strong, thoughtful and deliberate.  This a better way to live and we will not fail to meet the challenges before us.

Robert M. Randolph
Chaplain to the Institute

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Three Civic Virtues

Tuesdays in the Chapel
Tuesday November 3 | 8:30am | MIT Chapel
Speaker: Brian Aull, Bahá'ì Chaplain, MIT

First Reading:
In this Cause consultation is of vital importance, but spiritual conference and not the mere voicing of personal views is intended. In France I was present at a session of the senate, but the experience was not impressive. Parliamentary procedure should have for its object the attainment of the light of truth upon questions presented and not furnish a battleground for opposition and self-opinion. Antagonism and contradiction are unfortunate and always destructive to truth. In the parliamentary meeting mentioned, altercation and useless quibbling were frequent; the result, mostly confusion and turmoil; even in one instance a physical encounter took place between two members. It was not consultation but comedy.
The purpose is to emphasize the statement that consultation must have for its object the investigation of truth. He who expresses an opinion should not voice it as correct and right but set it forth as a contribution to the consensus of opinion, for the light of reality becomes apparent when two opinions coincide. A spark is produced when flint and steel come together. Man should weigh his opinions with the utmost serenity, calmness and composure. Before expressing his own views he should carefully consider the views already advanced by others. If he finds that a previously expressed opinion is more true and worthy, he should accept it immediately and not willfully hold to an opinion of his own. By this excellent method he endeavors to arrive at unity and truth.
2 May 1912

Three Civic Virtues - Brian Aull, MIT Bahá'ì Chaplain

So what did I learn this summer?

As some of you know, this was the year I published The Triad, a book on American democracy.   I undertook this because I have become very concerned about the direction American society is taking.   We see a climate of hostile and divisive partisanship, political corruption, and dysfunction in our governing institutions.   Alongside this are some very concerning problems:  failing school systems, high incarceration rates, racial tension, decaying infrastructure, and a widening gap between the social classes.

This is a faith-inspired book.   Its themes are rooted in the idea that as fellow human beings, we are members of an extended family.   This is a teaching we find in all the great religions.   It’s a deceptively simple idea.   It can be one of those lofty ideals that we dismiss as obvious on an abstract level but unattainable in practice.   

So my task was to answer the question: what would a democracy look like if it was inspired by this ideal?   What specifically are the “better angels” of citizenship that could make this happen in the real world?    I boil these down to three civic virtues in my book.  After the first edition of the book came out at the end of January, I began having conversations with others who share my concerns.   Over the summer, I discovered that other authors and activists had weighed in on these subjects.   In fact, there is a growing body of writings on civic renewal; remarkably, when I examined their solutions, I found that they rely on the same civic virtues.    People of very different backgrounds and training were arriving at the same answers.   By the end of the summer, I had a better understanding of the civic virtues, why they are important, and what they look like in the real world.   So what are they?

First, there is what I call service.  The term usually connotes volunteer work, but I use it more broadly.  It’s personal ownership of one’s role as a contributor to society.   Citizens are problem solvers, not just recipients of benefits.  An example is the California Redistricting Commission, in which a large number of civic-minded people arose to help redraw the electoral districts in the state, resulting in a new map that won praise from electoral reform groups.

The second virtue is learning.   Again, I’m using a term broadly.   It’s not academic learning, but civic learning.   A key part of this is an approach to deliberation in which the participants seek to learn about the problem they want to solve.  Instead of fighting for preconceived outcomes based on ideological bias, the participants gain new insights from the conversation.   They figure out in a collaborative way what the outcomes should be.   An example is the Strong Starts for Children program in New Mexico, whose recommendations for improving childhood education in the state came out of “dialog circles” comprising ordinary citizens.

The third virtue is community.   This means building networks of relationships.    People are different, and a powerful new capacity is created when they work together.   It’s particularly powerful when the relationships bridge traditional divides of race or class or whatever.   Catalyzed by a group of scholars from Auburn University, a racially diverse group of citizens began working together to revitalize a segregated, economically depressed, and dilapidated Alabama town.   Initially, their meetings had a stiff and formal atmosphere.   As their work progressed, something happened to them.   Growing personal warmth melted away the estrangement, and a strong group identity emerged that transcended race.   This in turn made them effective in eliciting cooperation and tapping diverse resources in the community.

Now imagine how constituents like those in these examples might transform the  incentives of political leaders.   They send a powerful signal:  don’t tell us what you think we want to hear. Tell us the truth, and then we’ll help you do a better job.

The above examples and the passages shared this morning from the Bahá’í writings reflect the longer-term vision that inspired The Triad.   This is humankind’s transition from political adolescence to political maturity.   Adversarial debate gives way to collaborative learning. Radical individualism yields to a spirit of community. The blame game is replaced by acts of service. Most importantly, the realization that the human race is one family, endowed by its Creator with the capacity to build a progressive and prosperous world civilization, emerges as the self-evident truth of the twenty-first century.

(To learn more about The Triad and read other pieces by Brian Aull, go to http://www.AwakenDemocracy.com)

Second Reading:
Be united in counsel, be one in thought. Let each morn be better than its eve and each morrow richer than its yesterday. Man’s merit lieth in service and virtue and not in the pageantry of wealth and riches. Take heed that your words be purged from idle fancies and worldly desires and your deeds be cleansed from craftiness and suspicion. Dissipate not the wealth of your precious lives in the pursuit of evil and corrupt affection, nor let your endeavors be spent in promoting your personal interest. Be generous in your days of plenty, and be patient in the hour of loss. Adversity is followed by success and rejoicings follow woe. Guard against idleness and sloth, and cling unto that which profiteth mankind, whether young or old, whether high or low. Beware lest ye sow tares of dissension among men or plant thorns of doubt in pure and radiant hearts.
c. 1873

For just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others.
Romans 12:4-5

Thousands of candles can be lighted from a single candle, and the life of the candle will not be shortened. Happiness never decreases by being shared.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

The Kingdom Comes in Parables

Memorial Church
Harvard University
July 5th,  2015

Good morning. If you are visiting Memorial Church let me welcome you. This place of worship and teaching at the heart of a great university is unique and important in American life and in the life of this city. This week-end it is a good place to be and it is important to reflect together and to share prayers.

Jan and I always enjoy our times here and this week-end is the anniversary of our move to Boston from New Haven a very long time ago. We came for a year thinking that we would then be drawn west and we are still here.
Beware of decisions made off handedly as they can sometimes be the most important decisions you make.

Let us pray: Lord, may the words from my mouth edify and may the intentions of my heart be appropriate for this hour.

Our texts for the morning are at one level quite appropriate for the heart of a university for they remind those of us who are parents to beware of what we pray for. The hand we are dealt when we bring children into the world, when we bring children into our lives in any fashion, often plays out in ways that confound and surprise us. 

David is 30 when he is called to rule the united kingdoms of Israel and Judah; it is some years after he had been called by Samuel to rule a portion of the divided kingdom. You want your sons and daughters to succeed, but no one in his family thought this was what would happen. They are astonished even as they are  honored, but given the course of the next 40 years we know that at least someone thought or said: wait a minute, are you sure you want to be this successful?

Mark is the gospel we are reading for a period on Sundays during this summer if we follow the common Lectionary. Tradition has it that John Mark wrote the book while in Rome and that it was drawn from the preaching of Peter. There are few actual words spoken by Jesus. His teaching depends on parables which by definition call on us to seek out understanding. These are stories that make a point and may be carried in memory to be called upon when needed or when insight offers new conclusions that bring new insight.  We are told that those closest to Jesus understood although their actions later tend to make us wonder if that is true. Others are left to ponder. We with the benefit of history can think through these tales as we do this morning.

As Jesus moves through Galilee he draws close to his home and we get a sense that all is not right with his family. His mother and brother come to watch him worried that all is not right. They are concerned about him.  They are afraid he has lost his mind. It is one thing to wish for a child to be a Torah scholar, but where did he get these notions?

Think for a moment of your dreams for your children, of your dreams for yourself. We have so many.  The poet Freyla Manfred sums up the end of so many of our dreams;
Imagine This
Imagine this: only one leg and lucky to have it,,,,
Smoothing down the sidewalk on a magic moving chair,
Teaching every child you meet the true story
Of this sad, sweet, tragic, Fourth of July world.”

And what is the true story? Sounds a bit like the musings of a Marathon bombing survivor.  The true story is that things often do not go as hoped in this “sweet, sad, tragic, 4th of July world”.  His family had hopes for Jesus; he might become a great teacher. More simply they wanted him to do well, have a family, live near home and here he is coming into town on a river of rumors, stirring the gossip in the neighborhood with stories of what he has done.
Jesus preaching in his own religious community left his audience gasping: not at his wisdom but at his arrogance.
When told his mother and brothers are there he redefines family: “who are my mother and my brothers? And looking around on those near him, he said, “Here are my mothers and my brothers!”  How often have we heard these stories as children become adults and redefine their lives in “this sad, sweet, tragic, 4th of July world.”?

 “Where did you get these notions, they asked?” the question is appropriate and in keeping with the tenor of the gospel of Mark.  Held to be the earliest of the gospels, Mark is also a minimalist text.  The book tends to offer few details, The other gospels expand and fill in gaps in information but in Mark the story unfolds in short, terse paragraphs leaving us to go elsewhere for details. We do well to remember than the church in Mark’s day had no place else to go. It is only later that we enjoy multiple witnesses.

And now he is in town teaching at the local synagogue. He has come with tales of healing and parables about seeds sown and an uncertain harvest. He speaks of the smallest seed growing into the largest tree. People wonder who speaks for him. Sometimes those whom he has aided have been told to tell no one: “remain silent, tell no one.”  Sometimes the word is tell every one.  He even healed a woman who was not Jewish and left a leader of the synagogue waiting while he did so. Now he gave life to Jairus’ daughter, but the symbolism spoke volumes. The “A” list had been turned upside down. The other, the stranger was as important as the conventionally religious.

His loudest fan was a man who was said to have been insane. He had gone around the neighborhood telling people Jesus had made him whole. He was about as welcome as Donald Trump would be at a celebration of Cinco de Mayo. What is a mother to do in this “sad, sweet, tragic 4th of July world.”?

Comparing the world of Jesus’ day to our 4th of July world may be a bit misleading. The 4th of July exudes triumphalism; there was little of that in Nazareth. We know how the story ends, but forget how it began: in defeat. Mark leaves out the details, but the prospects are not good. Jesus is said to have been nearly powerless in his home regions; only a few told stories of being healed.

When he sends out the 12 on a mission they go not as conquerors, but rather as those who may be ignored. If so, they are told not to act with power but rather to move on to where they are welcome. Go on, do your work. What he is specific about is that they are not to seek out the plush places, the comfortable B and Bs but to stay among the people and do their work.
This 4th of July we are grappling with enormous dislocation. The stock-markets hang on the results of the Greek vote.  We live in fear of the other named  Isis. And we talk of Jesus who came home and was rejected. It is one thing to be rejected by strangers, but these were people who knew him. And yet he continued to teach and heal in a sad, sweet, tragic, 4th of July world.

Maybe things would be clearer if he had spoken more pointedly rather than  using parables, but people were challenged by them: looking but not seeing, listening but not understanding and when they did see; when did understand they turned the world upside down.

And if Jesus came to Cambridge and taught in parables what might he say to us:

There was a Bible study in a large city.
The great and the small were gathered to share
And a stranger came in and sat with them and challenged them.
When he could not bear their words, he took
Out his gun and killed them.
The nation was shaken and uncertain, but the people of the city were steadfast.
There were those still in pain who forgave the stranger.
And some took down their flags, the long standing symbols of oppression.
And some said, it was such a small gesture in response to such a great tragedy. Why did it take so long?
That is the way it is with the kingdom of heaven!

And the Supreme Court said that those who love may have the protection of law.
And some said God was displeased
having forgotten that the Teacher when asked had said that doing justice was required of those who loved God and the greatest commandment was to love the neighbor as we love ourselves.

There was a young man who committed a horrific act.
He was part of our community though his origins were distant; he went to school in Cambridge.
When brought to trial he remained silent and showed no emotion as he heard the account of his crimes.
And he learned of the pain he had wrought.
When he spoke he offered an apology-
He is young and unschooled.
His words were imprecise; his manner rough.
And those who wished to hear him found the words
Unsatisfactory and he remains a stranger to those who lived near him. He will die for his crime.
The forgiveness of Charleston does not reach to Cambridge.

That is the way it is with the kingdom of heaven!
Let those with eyes see and those with ears hear.

The word of the Lord in our sad, sweet, tragic 4th of July world.

Robert M. Randolph
Chaplain to the Institute

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Lavender Graduation: A charge to the LGBT graduates of MIT May 8, 2015

Lavender Graduation

Since Abigail asked me to speak I have thought a good deal about what to say. I realized over the last few years that my theme has essentially been the same. I want you all to recognize how proud we are of you and what you have accomplished. And I want you to know that we have no illusions about the resilience it has taken to reach today.  I can cherry pick illustrations of progress, but I cannot forget the obstacles that continue to crop up: tensions with families, significant slights, the fear that is always present about whether or not acceptance is real or feigned.

You are graduating and like parents we would like to be sure you are safe so my inclination is to tell you that there are more supportive resources out there than you may know about.

But I remember a poem by Maria Mazziotti Gillan:

Everything We Don’t Want Them to Know

At eleven, my granddaughter looks like my daughter did,
The slender body, that thin face, the grace
With which she moves. When she visits, she sits with my daughter;
They have hot chocolate together
And talk. The way my granddaughter moves her hand, the
Concentration with which she does everything,
Knocks me back to the time when I sat with my daughter at
This table and we talked and I watched the grace
With which she moved her hands, the delicate way she lifted
The heavy hair back behind her ear.

My daughter is grown now, married in a fairy-tale wedding,
Divorced, something inside
Her broken, healing slowly. I look at my grand-daughter and
I want to save her, as I was not able
To save my daughter. Nothing is that simple, all our plans,
Carefully made, thrown into a cracked
pile by the way love betrays us.

I know that there are strong communities of religious folk who are open and affirming. There are strong communities of progressive thinkers who are not religious who are open and affirming. I want to assure you that what you need can be found so you can navigate the roiling waters of life after MIT. That is what I would like to say but two recent bits of information crossed my path and made me think that I was being a bit too sanguine. I understand that love sometimes betrays us.

The first bit of data that challenged my thinking came from reading about Mary Bonauto, the talented Maine resident who has argued the cause of marriage rights up to the Supreme Court. Bonauto said that when she first started arguing the case she turned to her religious community for support. She loved her religious community but she realized that she would have to go elsewhere for support. That was over a decade ago, and some things have evolved and changed in such communities, but it still can be a crap shoot. I do not want to mislead you. Things we love can betray us.

The second jarring note was sounded by E.J. Dionne in the Washington Post writing about Senator Chris Coons of Delaware who spoke to the Secular Coalition of America whose mission is “to amplify the diverse and growing voice of the nontheistic community in the United States.”  He talked of his growing unease with “rigid certainty” on questions related to religious truth and of the pain and discomfort caused by outdated teachings and moral codes. But then he went on to tell of his own experience as a Senator and a person of faith who tried to speak to the progressive community at Yale Law School about his faith commitments and was greeted by what he called “real bigotry.” For many progressives, “accepting someone of expressed faith was one of the hardest moments of tolerance and inclusion for them.” But the Senator is hard nosed and as a result he  pushed on and learned of the origins of the experiences of these progressive folk who had personal “experiences of deep pain and of alienation that had driven a big wedge between them and religion.”

His conclusion was deceptively simple: We must find ways of “getting past some of our misunderstandings of each other.” And that I have concluded is the message I need to leave with you today. Despite your accomplishments; despite our desire to protect you, we cannot guarantee that the path tomorrow will be smooth, but we have confidence in you and in your strength  to overcome adversity and to brush aside the betrayals of love and other experiences.

So while I would like to send you forth with words of comfort and encouragement, I am going to have to tell you that we need you to continue to be courageous and challenging of the status quo. We must find ways of “getting past some of our misunderstandings of each other.” It is tempting to turn inward, to wall ourselves off from a culture that causes needless pain, but we must continue to engage and challenge that culture. That is your charge. We have faith in you and we will be here to support you.  Now, go with our blessings.