Category Archives: Interfaith Encounter

The Last Time

View of the Mediterranean from the Peres Center for Peace & Innovation

The last time I went to Israel, the world was evidently ending. It was near to the end of 1999, and people were feeling frantic about the arrival of Y2K and start of the second millennium in the common era. Either all our interactive computer systems were predicted to fail all at once, resulting in mass chaos and global destruction, or we were going to witness the cataclysmic second coming of the Christ. The former was a largely secular concern, so I heard people in Jerusalem, mostly Christians and Muslims, speculating far more about the latter. 

People had competing notions about which direction Jesus would come from and which gate he would use to enter the holy city. I had a Palestinian cab driver who was certain that he knew the answers to both those questions and who had little patience for quarreling about the basic premise with me. I somehow remained far less credulous than everyone else. My overweight backpack was bursting at the seams because I inevitably packed for every possible contingency. But there was one I would not allow, namely the arrival of the apocalypse.

Jews keep a different calendar than Gentiles do; it is the same one they have kept for several millennia now. This year in Jewish time, for instance, is 5782, not 2022. So the Jewish Israelis seemed less concerned than others in the country about the impending end of the world. They had already marked 2000 many years earlier. While the Hebrew Scriptures, like the the Christian Testament, hold out apocalyptic visions, Jews have been watching the world not end for longer than their Christian and Muslim siblings have.

At the Israel Museum, an entire exhibit hall is dedicated to the Shrine of the Book, which houses the Dead Sea Scrolls that were first discovered in Qumran in 1947, the same year that the United Nations adopted its resolution about the creation of an Israeli state. Among the Dead Sea Scrolls are liturgical materials from the Essenes, and among the prayers and hymns is a prayer for the End of Days. The days of the Essenes ended before they could mark that momentous occasion, although their sacred literature was somehow not lost in the sands of time.

The Essenes were a mystical sect of Jews who dwelled in desert from the 2nd Century BCE until the 1st Century CE. They lived in Judea when Jesus was wandering it with his disciples. They believed that humans had immortal and imperishable souls, souls that could outlast the world itself. I remember one of my seminary professors asking us what sort of world we students believed we inhabited; if it was corrupted, conflictual, and cruel, this professor suggested, it would appear a cosmic kindness if it were simply to end. In a sense, apocalyptic literature held out a strange hope to its readers. 

Today, globally, we are witnessing the catastrophic consequences of climate change. Some have suggested that we use the term climate collapse instead, and indeed, it seems we are teetering on the brink of that. At the congregation I used to serve, the Social Action Council asked if we should try rank ordering our priorities. To the obvious annoyance of one long-time council member, I quickly suggested that we put environmental concerns at the top of the list. “Everyone thinks that their causes are the most important,” this member told me, although I had not thought of this previously as my particular cause, just as a pressing issue none of us could ignore any longer. She seemed to think the matter was open to debate. “The planet people are right,” I replied. “In the absence of a planet, all of our causes are lost.” 

The last time I went to Israel, I travelled solo. This summer, I went as part of a Protestant clergy leadership tour led by the Jewish Community Relations Council of Boston. Places look different, I discovered, when they are beheld with communal eyes. In the time were were traveling together, Boston seemed very far away to me. But a ministerial colleague back home told me that by late July, Boston was getting as hot as Haifa. This has been a summer of heat wave after heat wave, and not just in New England. 

At the end of our final day in Israel, just before we left for the airport in Tel Aviv, we visited the Peres Center for Peace & Innovation, established in honor of the late Isreali prime minister Shimon Peres, who won a Nobel Peace Prize in 1994 and whose memory remains a blessing to the country he helped found. He always believed in the human capacity to solve our most stubborn, seemingly intractable problems, primarily by actively expanding our imaginations. “Optimists and pessimists die the same way,” Peres famously said in one interview. “They just live differently. I prefer to live as an optimist.” Who wouldn’t prefer that? As we confront climate collapse, we may need to stay optimistic about the possibility of dramatic and systematic change in order to stay alive.

The contemporary center that bears his name was completed in 2009; it boasts a beautiful view overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. What we clergy-tourists saw from there was blue sky and wide horizon. There is a motto sculpted in in metal letters that gleam under the strong sun: DREAM BIG. In his 2017 book, No Room for Small Dreams: Courage, Imagination, and the Making of Modern Israel, Peres writes: “If an expert says it can’t be done, get another expert.” When the Peres Center showcases innovation, it includes social and ethical reforms as well as scientific and technological advances. We need reforms and advances alike these days, and fairly immediately, to slow the sequencing of future climate disasters. We have a world full of wonders — past and present and future — to preserve.

As you may recall, the world did not in fact end at the close of 1999 or at the start of 2000. Thankfully, computer programmers fixed all those Y2K bugs in time. My cab driver lost the bet he would have gladly made with me, were I a betting woman, and miscalculated the timing of the apocalypse. Obviously, he was not the first to do so. Even the Essenes were not the first to so, and they arrived fairly early on the scene. My guess is that people have been forecasting the end of the world probably since the beginning of time. I honestly do not know if the timeline of humanity has a terminus nearby that it is rapidly approaching. I certainly hope not. None of us wants to see that pulling in to view, not even those most ardently predicting it will. We humans have been wrong so many time before; I find that fact in and of itself inspiring.

Peace by Peace

After I moved from New York to Massachusetts, I transferred my clinical license between the states. When my Massachusetts copy arrived in the mail, I was horrified. In addition to the letters after my name, in the background of the license appeared the seal of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, which I had never before noticed. This seal depicts an Indigenous man in traditional garb standing underneath a hand grasping a sword, complete with the Latin motto that translates: “By the sword we seek peace, but peace only under liberty”. It reads like an inscription on an atrocious trophy. The very paper that my license was printed on seemed tainted. I put it a folder in the back of my filing cabinet, some place far out of sight, where it could not further contaminate anyone’s consciousness. Honestly, I do not even like having it in my home. I feel implicated by it. I am implicated by it. As a citizen of these United States, in particular an Anglo member of the dominant culture, I am the heir of conquerors. Some conquered using the sword, some using gunpowder, some even using small pox. How much peace can there be, I wonder, after centuries of genocide?

Earlier this year, the Commonwealth created a commission to create a new motto, seal, and state flag for Massachusetts; the nineteen members of the commission hope to propose those before the end of the year. It is social progress, undoubtedly, but it is long overdue. It marks our latest reckoning with our troubled past — in this country, in the New England region, and in this state. This month, for the first time ever and by executive decree, Boston will be celebrating Indigenous People’s Day instead of Columbus Day, the October holiday it has commemorated for decades. It is one of more 20 municipalities statewide to make this change. Within a couple of years, I expect, the change will be made statewide. The more people learn about the terrible exploits of Columbus, the more reluctant they will be to honor his memory or legacy.

Honor Indigenous Peoples’ Day!

The Unitarian Universalist congregation I serve as Senior Minister has officially commemorated Indigenous Peoples’ Day each October since 2012, since that was the year that the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations passed a resolution to repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery, a 15th-century manifesto that provided Europeans with the religious ideology that sanctioned their profiteering and imperialist drives toward expansion into the New World and its Americas. Overseas explorers were empowered to convert the heathen natives by any means necessary — but only after subduing them first. 

This summer, Canadian citizens were horrified by the discovery of the remains of hundred of indigenous children who had been buried on the grounds of mission boarding schools in mass and unmarked graves. Around the U.S., such mission boarding schools were operating throughout the 19th into the 20th centuries, a few of them funded by the institutional precursor to the Unitarian Universalist Association. One Unitarian mission school was opened in Montana in the 1880s, on the Crow reservation, and run by the Rev. Henry F. Bond. In correspondence, he shared his views that the Crow children who had been forcibly separated from their families and brought into his custody would “enter at once upon a life of usefulness, and… do credit to their training, and become zealous and successful laborers for the civilization of their race” and never “be… thrust back into a sea of barbarism with no career open to them, and no one to look after them.” The relish with which this clergyman assumed the proverbial White Man’s Burden is unmistakable — and appalling.

These days, people in my denomination are joining with interfaith networks across the Americas in undertaking a process of truth-telling and reconciliation. One such network released statement in July 2021 that acknowledged that “tribal communities have been testifying for years to the truth of forced removal, assimilation, abuse, and death perpetrated through boarding schools…. We also know that the trauma of this history lives on in the lives of people and communities, and all of us are affected.” It concluded: “Telling the truth is a critical step to healing… we know that a radical shift must occur in our own theologies as we seek to repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery and the way [that] has been used to justify colonialism, domination, slavery, and genocide of indigenous people.” This long weekend in October, we can all take part in making that spiritual shift ourselves. 

“And I saw that the sacred hoop of my people was one of many hoops that make one circle, wide as daylight and starlight… to shelter all the children of one mother and one father,” Black Elk of the Lakota tribe long ago told us, “and I saw that it was holy.” Can we see so many interlocking circles? Can we appreciate how enormous and inclusive they are? Can we revere them as holy? This year, my church has begun work on installing a permanent land acknowledgment marker on our church campus, acknowledging that our buildings and ground are located on the traditional territory of the Massachusett tribe. That is true and somehow entirely too easy for us to overlook.

Last summer, my husband and I moved to our new home in Watertown, MA and inherited a couple of big green recycling bins in our backyard emblazoned with the town seal. Watertown is located on the traditional territory of the Pequossette tribe and the seal makes reference to that fact. Admittedly, this town seal is much more benign than the one emblazoned on our state flag and also etched on to my clinical license. Watertown has a Latin motto of its own, but a kinder, gentler one: In pace condita, or “Founded in peace.” I told my husband that I had to question that historicity of that account and so we made a closer study of the claim. 

The motto underlines a pastoral scene containing what is no doubt an idealized encounter along the banks of the Charles River. In it, a Puritan man is offering a tribesman a hearty baked good in exchange for proffered bass no doubt fished from local waters; in the backdrop are other members of the Pequossette tribe standing in front of their teepees in stances signaling they are interested onlookers, with only friendly curiosity and no misgivings whatsoever. The scene portrays amiable commerce and equal exchange. My husband suggested that there might be some value in even having a revisionist history of the town founding, at least in its expression of a collective hope that things might have been fairly decent when they in all likelihood there were not. Perhaps?

Like many White kids in my generation, I grew up playing games of “Cowboys and Indians” with others in my neighborhood, and there was never any question among us about who were the good guys and who were the bad guys — about which was the preferred (and indeed, superior) identity. As schoolchildren, we use ethnic slurs like “Indian giver” in the most casual manner imaginable in public contexts where they went entirely unchallenged. That is a mortifying enough admission in its own right, but today I am doubly disturbed by the way that insult presented so blatant an inversion of reality. An Indian giver was supposedly someone who gave you something only to take it back. Think of the bitter irony of that. How many insidious lies were we raised with about our Indigenous siblings, how many derogatory caricatures? More than I care to catalogue now. Lately, I better comprehend how prone we are to confusing the victim and villain roles. School and national sports teams no longer making use of so-called “Native American” mascots is just one concession we can make to ending confusion about what constitutes savagery. 

As the U.S. Poet Laureate and Indigenous author Joy Harjo writes, “Remember you are all people and all people are you.” We have work to counter our strongest social conditioning, which in the U.S. valorizes and vindicates settler colonialism by White Europeans. In Boston, there was considerable upset among its residents that Indigenous People’s Day represented the undoing of Columbus Day. It did, yes. Yet how could it have been otherwise? We have to surrender our allegiance to the conquerers in order to challenge the demonic logic of conquest itself and join in solidarity with all the conquered. Unless we want that hand grasping a sword on the Massachusetts seal to be representative of our own, we have to renounce both the ideologies and practices that make us complicit with triumphant tales that would turn Indigenous Peoples into human trophies. Unless we want to become strangers to our highest selves, we have to become familiar with the traditional territories we inhabit; we have to understand how that ground was gained; we have to resist the mental, emotional, and spiritual legacies of colonialism; and we have to apprise what settler colonialism has cost us in terms of a shared humanity. Let us start to correct some of the errors of the past with Indigenous Peoples Day. Let us seek whatever peace can be made with our history this holiday. Let us begin in earnest today.