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Interfaith Lecture Recaps

Former ‘Forum’ host, scholar Michael Krasny brings laughter, context to Jewish humor

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MAX ZAMBRANO – STAFF WRITER

Michael Krasny, retired host of KQED’s “Forum” and author of Let There Be Laughter: A Treasury of Great Jewish Humor and What It All Means, delivers his lecture “Jewish Humor: History, Culture and Identity” Monday in the Amphitheater. DAVE MUNCH / PHOTO EDITOR

Michael Krasny has what he called a treasure trove of Jewish jokes, plenty of which stem from the common notion that Jewish humor comes from a place of suffering. He even opened his lecture, “Jewish Humor: History, Culture and Identity,” with one such quip.

“The idea that Jewish humor is masochistic? I’m so tired of hearing that, that I want to kill myself,” Krasny said, drawing his first of many laughs from the Amphitheater.

Krasny’s 1 p.m. lecture on Monday, July 26 was the first of three Interfaith Series Lectures for Week Five, themed “The Authentic Comedic Voice: Truth Born of Struggle.” He is the author of Let There Be Laughter: A Treasury of Great Jewish Humor and What It All Means. 

Additionally, Krasny taught literature and the English language at several colleges, including San Francisco State University, Stanford University, the University of San Francisco and the University of California. For three decades, he was a radio host, most notably for KQED’s “Forum,” which he hosted from 1993 to his retirement this past February.

For his lecture, Krasny told plenty of Jewish jokes with the goal of getting his audience to understand their context and underlying meaning. 

One joke he hadn’t heard until he wrote his book, published in 2016, starts with a rabbi who sees a young, sad-looking man at his congregation. He approached the man to see what was wrong, to which the man replied that he was looking for a wife. He had found several online that he liked, but his mother didn’t approve of any of them.

The rabbi asks the man if he looked for someone with similar traits to his mother. Not having done so yet, the man takes the rabbi’s advice, only to return a few weeks later looking worse for wear. The rabbi asks what happened. 

“The man said, ‘I found someone online who is not only interested in the same things as my mother, but cooks the same things, too. She looks and sounds like my mother. I brought her home, and even my father couldn’t stand her,’ ” Krasny said. 

This joke, Krasny said, pokes at the heart of long-lasting marriage and the institution of marriage in Jewish values. 

Next, Krasny said a new perspective can form by looking at Ashkenazi and Yiddish origins. 

“There’s the joke about two Jews, that’s tragically not all that unusual, who are in front of a firing squad,” he said. “They’re standing there before the squad, which is about to ready, aim, fire, and one of the Jews said to the other, ‘Don’t we get a last wish to ask for a cigarette?’ The other said, ‘Be quiet, do you want to get us in trouble?’ ”

Krasny said this joke points at Jews’ fear of bringing wrath upon themselves. 

Following this joke, Krasny told one which he said metaphors Jewish assimilation in America. It started with a New York Jew, Frenchman and German traveling in the Amazon when they are captured by cannibals. 

Taken to the village, the leader comes out in a loincloth to tell the men they are to be killed and eaten by the village, but because they are humane, they allow the three to choose how they die, and their skin will be turned into canoes. 

The Frenchman chose a guillotine, and his head was chopped with a hatchet. The German chose a Luger, so the leader shot him with a gun. The New York Jew asked for a fork. The leader, confused, pulled one out, and the Jew took the fork. 

“He takes the fork and starts stabbing himself with it and says, ‘Here’s your effing canoe,’ ” Krasny said.

Krasny teased that he wasn’t sure if he should tell that joke because we live in a “woke time” and the term “cannibal” could offend cannibals. Comedians like Chris Rock and Jerry Seinfeld have said publicly they don’t like to perform on college campuses anymore because their humor isn’t politically correct.

“It says a lot about humor that one has to be painfully conscious,” Krasny said. “When you go into Jewish humor, you find plenty of stereotypes about Jews themselves and about every group you can imagine. You can find a lot of misogyny.”

He gave three such jokes, one of which was about a Jewish man who wanted his body cremated, which goes against Jewish orthodoxy, Krasny said. 

“He wants to be cremated and his ashes put in Bloomingdale’s — so he’s certain his wife will visit him occasionally,” Krasny said. 

Krasny said that although the misogynistic jokes were off-putting, they reference how after Jewish people immigrated to the United States, they wanted to spoil their daughters.

“When you analyze Jewish humor, you realize a lot of it is about assimilation,” he said, “the idea (Jews) came here from real suffering and found humor and joy in a land that really granted them freedom they had never had.” 

Understanding assimilating in the U.S. means looking at three groups: the pious Jew, the conservative Jew and the reform Jew, Krasny said. 

One joke Krasny told illustrated the difference between each group through the word “Berakah,” which translates to “blessing.” In the joke, a young Jewish man goes to an orthodox synagogue to ask for a Berakah on his new Mercedes. The rabbi is horrified and tells him to go to a conservative rabbi down the street. 

The conservative rabbi doesn’t help him either, but points to a reform rabbi further down. The reform rabbi asks the man more about his Mercedes, such as what model, telling him that he has one, too. He then asks the man a question.

“By the way, what’s a Berakah?” the punchline went. 

When you analyze Jewish humor, you realize a lot of it is about assimilation — the idea (Jews) came here from real suffering and found humor and joy in a land that really granted them freedom they had never had.

—Michael Krasny
Former host, 
KQED’s “Forum”

Plenty of Jewish humor is self-deprecating, and Krasny said it is apparent that these jokes indicate some pain or loss. But, he said a lot of the humor can be celebrative, too. 

In one example, Krasny said an old Jewish man was sitting between two Texans on a flight to Dallas. One of the Texans said, “My name is Roger, I own 250,000 acres, 1,000 head of cattle and they call my place ‘Jolly Roger.’ ”

The other Texan said, “I’m John, I own 350,000 acres, I have 5,000 head of cattle and they call my place ‘Big John’s.’ ”

They asked the smaller Jewish man his name and what he owned. His name was Lenny Liebowitz, and he owned 300 acres and didn’t raise any animals. The perplexed Texans asked him what he called the place he owned.

“Downtown Dallas,” he said.

Krasny said it’s common for Jewish humor to lean into the ideas that all Jews are capitalist or that all Jews are communist, which reflects real life antisemitic thoughts. 

“It’s taking stereotype and antisemitism and turning that into a joke,” Krasny said.

Another trope of Jewish humor picks at the idea some think they are chosen to have the Torah, the Jewish holy text that also comprises the first five books of the Bible. Krasny said when he was a boy he was told he wasn’t even the first choice, wasn’t superior and the idea of chosenness is misappropriated. 

“Much of this humor is about loss, differentness, separateness,” he said. “It’s really about identity.”

Some of the old Yiddish in jokes brings back memories, Krasny said. One joke involved the word “mishigas,” meaning craziness. 

The joke centers on two Japanese men, and one tells the other that his wife is having an affair with a Jewish man. He decides to confront her.

“She says, ‘Who told you this mishigas?’ ” Krasny said.

Yiddish has its own cadence, Krasny said, making it humorous in context. 

“When we go back to these jokes, we realize they have much more meaning than we thought they did,” he said. “A lot of the jokes that became current in American Jewish culture were barrier-breaking, envelope-pushing jokes.”

He referenced one Woody Allen joke, but first noted that some people may not even want to hear Allen’s name anymore after the HBO documentary series “Allen v. Farrow,” detailing the allegations of abuse leveled by Allen’s ex-wife and adopted daughter.

The joke, poking at Jewish cheapness, goes, “I thought I read about metaphors with the Bible and the burning bush with the Red Sea parting, but then my Uncle Sasha picked up the check.”

Krasny said some people argue these jokes shouldn’t be told in mixed company, but he said it’s important to understand the larger context of these jokes. 

Michael Krasny, retired host of KQED’s “Forum” and author of Let There Be Laughter: A Treasury of Great Jewish Humor and What It All Means, delivers his lecture “Jewish Humor: History, Culture and Identity” Monday in the Amphitheater. DAVE MUNCH / PHOTO EDITOR

Some jokes are cross-cultural, in that the setup and punchline are the same but can be given a Jewish twist. Krasny gave an example of one that did not cross cultures. 

“This Jewish guy is getting knighted by Queen Elizabeth, and he has a yarmulke on his head, and there’s a line of men and she says ‘What makes this knight different from all the other knights?’ I don’t think that spreads out to different cultures,” he said.

He then gave examples of cross-cultural jokes. One of them involved a barber who wouldn’t take money from a person of God. He denies payment from a priest, who leaves him a crucifix and a note of thanks at the barbershop the next day. The same happens with a minister, who leaves a Bible with an inscription of gratitude the following day.

When the rabbi gets a haircut, and is told he doesn’t have to pay, the next day there are 12 rabbis at the barbershop. 

At a dinner with friends, Krasny said he heard the same joke, but it was a Frenchman, Englishman and Chinese man, and 12 Chinese showed up the next day.

In searching for the quintessential Jewish joke, Krasny found one from Harvard professor Ruth Wise about a German, Frenchman, Mexican and Jew who have made an arduous trek up a mountain. At the top, each are tired and thirsty.

The Mexican said he must drink tequila. The Frenchman said he must drink wine. The German said he must drink beer. The Jew said he must have diabetes.

“We complain a lot. We see problems when they shouldn’t be there, but nevertheless that’s who we are, and in some ways we own it,” Krasny said.

Krasny said laughter was necessary for a healthy life.

“We need laughter,” he said. “Laughter sustains us.”

Professor, archivist Gary Philip Zola shows Jews’ history, valuable contributions to America

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MAX ZAMBRANO – STAFF WRITER

Rabbi Gary Zola, executive director of the Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives, delivers his lecture “American Exceptionalism vs. American Jewish Exceptionalism: Actualizing Religious Freedom in U.S. History” Wednesday, July 21, 2021 in the Amphitheater. DAVE MUNCH/PHOTO EDITOR

Jewish people have never had a better life than those who have lived in the United States, said Rabbi Gary Phillip Zola, executive director of the Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives.

He argued this based on American Jewish exceptionalism, the concept that nowhere else at any point in time have Jews had more opportunity, equality or come closest to the ideals outlined in the founding of the U.S.

This notion differs from American exceptionalism, which is the claim that America is a special nation and inherently different from the rest of the world, and Zola contended that this notion has its upsides and downsides.

Zola sees the American Jewish experience as unique.

He described why Jewish life in America was different at 1 p.m. Wednesday, July 21 in the Amphitheater. His lecture, “American Exceptionalism versus American Jewish Exceptionalism: Actualizing Religious Freedom in U.S. History,” was the last in the Interfaith Lecture Series for Week Four, themed “The Evolving Religious Narrative of America.”

Zola started with four points to prove his argument.

First, he said Jewish history in America began well before the United States became a country, when the first Jewish colony was formed in New Amsterdam in 1654. 

“There has been a continuous Jewish communal presence with synagogues since 1654,” Zola said.

Second, Jews actively participated in the fight for America’s independence, Zola said, serving as soldiers, partisans and patriots. 

“This is very unusual, that the Jewish community is rightfully entitled to say we helped birth the American nation,” Zola said.

Third, the U.S. Constitution asserts inalienable rights to all men. Without knowing the Constitutional Convention already decided on a separation between church and state, Zola said Jewish immigrant and Revolutionary War veteran Jonas Phillips wrote a letter encouraging it. 

“‘ The Israelites will think themselves happy to live under a government where all religious societies are on an equal footing. I solicit this favor for myself, my children and posterity, and for the benefit of all the Israelites through the 13 United States of America, ’” Zola read from Phillips’ letter. “He didn’t know the convention had made that decision, but it tells you what (American Jews) aspired for.”

Rabbi Gary Zola, executive director of the Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives, delivers his lecture “American Exceptionalism vs. American Jewish Exceptionalism: Actualizing Religious Freedom in U.S. History” Wednesday, July 21, 2021 in the Amphitheater. DAVE MUNCH/PHOTO EDITOR

The fourth unique feature was the creation of an independent federal judiciary that gives more credibility to the Constitution, Zola said.

“I can show you the Constitution of the old Soviet Union, and if you read it you would think, ‘My God, this is really on par with the U.S. Constitution.’ But if you don’t have the right to prosecute, then you don’t have equal justice under the law,” he said.

As a professor at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati, Zola said he teaches his students that they are both Jews and Americans.

“There is nothing about being an American that makes it impossible to be a good Jew, and there’s nothing about being a good Jew that makes it impossible to be an American,” he said. “That has been an idea to which we have clung from the very beginning of our community.”

He gave three examples to support this idea. 

The first point related to Phillips’ letter is the idea that Jewish citizens and Judaism are equal to all other religions according to U.S. law, Zola said.

“My second point,” Zola said, “is that Jews not only have the right but the duty to argue that Jews who are U.S. citizens and Jews around the world are entitled to the full protection of U.S. government law, and Jews have the right to advance and advocate for their cause just like all Americans.”

Zola’s third point is based on the Constitution’s distinction between majority rule and inalienable rights. 

“American Jewry has always displayed a heightened commitment to minority rights,” he said. “Jews have, from the beginning, been interested in minority rights for themselves and others.”

To summarize his argument to this point, Zola read from an 1827 newspaper. When Zola was pursuing his doctorate, he focused on the Jews of Charleston, South Carolina, and he stumbled upon a note in a newspaper signed with the last name Cohen. Zola recognized this as a Jewish name, and kept reading. 

In it, the writer demands an apology from a doctor who had insulted him, or else he shall be prepared to duel, Zola said. 

“The Constitution of the United States, and of my native State, give me and every citizen, of every religious denomination, equal rights and equal privileges. Members of the same community are valued only according to their conduct in life, and none but a bigot and a Coward, like Edward Chisolm (the doctor), would attempt to insult a whole nation,” Zola read from the paper. 

Rabbi Gary Zola, executive director of the Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives, delivers his lecture “American Exceptionalism vs. American Jewish Exceptionalism: Actualizing Religious Freedom in U.S. History” Wednesday, July 21, 2021 in the Amphitheater. DAVE MUNCH/PHOTO EDITOR

Zola sees this as a great summary of his broader point.

“He speaks not only for the Jews, but of every citizen of every religious denomination,” Zola said. “The Jew has uniquely been positioned, because of the length with which we’ve been here, to be the advocate for bringing the nation closer and closer to its ideals.”

Looking at another letter, this one written by Jewish merchant Jacob Ezekiel, Zola focused on a historic moment in U.S. history. In 1841, one month after his inauguration, President William Henry Harrison died, and John Tyler became the first person to succeed the position through the vice presidency. 

In one of his first addresses to the nation, Tyler called on Americans to go to houses of worship and say prayers in sorrow for the fallen Harrison. Zola said in this address, Tyler said this was necessary because Americans are a Christian people. 

Ezekiel’s letter called Tyler out.

“I, as well as others, were somewhat surprised to find in the columns of our journals, in the age in which we live, that the chief magistrate of this union shall by official recommendation to the people of the U.S. address us as ‘a Christian people’ … no doubt forgetting that during the revolution of this country, blood of all denominations was shed for its freedom,” Zola read.

Zola noted that Ezekiel did not single out Jews, but defended all denominations in his letter to the president. 

Moving to the 20th century, Zola identified Charles Coughlin, who in the 1930s was a famous radio priest who decided Jews were socialists and communists, classifying them as un-American. 

“He became the boogeyman of the American Jew in the 1930s, a very difficult period for bigotry toward the Jews,” Zola said.

At a large gathering in Cleveland in 1936, depicted in a video shown by Zola in the Amp, Coughlin applauded attendees for gathering and appreciating that they as Christians believe in loving their neighbor as themselves, and he challenged every Jew to tell him that they do not believe that.

Coughlin’s ideas were challenged by Stephen S. Wise, who Zola called one of the most important and famous Jews in the 20th century. His congregation met in Carnegie Hall from 1910 to 1939, and some of his recordings from there are only housed at the American Jewish Archives, Zola said.

In a 1938 sermon, one meant for radio broadcast that Zola played for the Amp, Wise called Coughlinism the deadliest form of antisemitism in America, and that Coughlinism was another name for anti-democratic and anti-American.

“True, Coughlinism has not explicitly and frankly defended antisemitism or Nazism in Germany,” Wise said. “It would if it dared … For the Jew, Coughlinism is a regrettable phenomenon. For the Catholic Church, it is a disaster. But above all, it is America’s shame.”

Zola reminded the audience that in Jewish history, outside of its own nation-state, it was rare for them to be able to speak this way.

Rabbi Gary Zola, executive director of the Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives, delivers his lecture “American Exceptionalism vs. American Jewish Exceptionalism: Actualizing Religious Freedom in U.S. History” Wednesday, July 21, 2021 in the Amphitheater. DAVE MUNCH/PHOTO EDITOR

Going back to his point of Jews and Judaism being protected under U.S. law anywhere in the world, Zola highlighted Jacob Schiff, one of the founders of the American Jewish Committee in 1906. This group sought the advancement of Jewish rights, Zola said.

At the beginning of the 20th century, Jews in Russia were subject to intensifying brutalization and riots against them. U.S. Jews attempted to abrogate an existing 1911 treaty by testifying before the House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs. 

Several people testified, but Zola read from Schiff’s comments.

“If any of you who may happen to confess the Jewish faith, any American who was accidentally born of Jewish parentage, wants to go to the Far East today, and wants to take the shortest route possible … the Trans-Siberian Railway. When he comes to the Russian border he is told ‘No thoroughfare.’ Just think of what that means to an American,” Zola read. 

Schiff continued, comparing this situation to what would happen if Russians were stopped at the Panama Canal, which was set to be completed a few years later with U.S. help. 

“What a howl there would be on the part of the civilized world,” he read.

To Schiff and his committee’s satisfaction, the treaty was abrogated. 

Zola then went back to his point on minority rights granted through the Constitution. He focused on Richard Wright’s 1940 fictional book Native Son, where a Black man is on trial for the murder of a white woman; if he is convicted he will be sentenced to death. 

He is assigned a Jewish lawyer, who tells the man that no matter how noble an argument he puts forward, they were destined to lose to a jury, which is exactly what happened, Zola said. 

Rabbi Gary Zola, executive director of the Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives, delivers his lecture “American Exceptionalism vs. American Jewish Exceptionalism: Actualizing Religious Freedom in U.S. History” Wednesday, July 21, 2021 in the Amphitheater. DAVE MUNCH/PHOTO EDITOR

In a 1940 sermon, Wise reviewed this book. 

“As I read Native Son, the word and the mind and the understanding and compassionate soul of the Jewish lawyer became to me at one and the same time symbol, rebuke, prophecy, challenge,” Wise wrote. “It’s a symbol of what the Jew should be and do in relation to other races that are oppressed and ground into the dust.”

Zola wanted the audience to focus on one line he later said that further illustrated Jews’ dedication to supporting all minority rights.

“I feel a double obligation to every oppressed race and to every wronged man on earth, for I am an American, and I am a Jew,” Wise wrote.

In another example, Zola mentioned Rabbi Milton Grafman, a Birmingham, Alabama, rabbi who, after the September 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church that left four children dead, gave a sermon during Rosh Hashanah. 

During the sermon, which Zola emphasized being on a High Holy Day, Grafman was speaking to some people who only attended twice a year. He said he attended the funeral because he wanted to show his sorrow between all communities. 

Additionally, the person who spoke directly before Martin Luther King Jr.’s August 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech was American Jewish Congress President Joachim Prinz, which Zola said embodied all of American Jewish exceptionalism. 

To close, Zola reflected on the first rabbi to speak at Chautauqua, Gustav Gottheil, who spoke on the grounds in 1891. Zola wanted people to make good on Gottheil’s prayer.

“I believe this Chautauqua is a very good foretaste of the things to come, and that the light of its influence will spread to the length and breadth of this land,” Gottheil said. “It may still be remembered that on this day … really commenced the grander day when all the walls of separation between the Hebrews and this good and great nation, upon whom I pray God may send that blessing.”

Native American Community Services Director Martin explores lasting impact of colonization in Native communities, calls for common humanity

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MAX ZAMBRANO – STAFF WRITER

Michael Martin, executive director of Native American Community Services of Erie and Niagara Counties, delivers his lecture Tuesday in the Amphitheater. KRISTEN TRIPLETT/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

He doesn’t claim to be a lawyer, legal expert or scholar in any way, nor is he looking to convert anyone. What Michael Martin wants people to do, however, is look deeper into their own beliefs or faith, all the way back to creation stories. 

Martin, the executive director for Native American Community Services of Erie and Niagara Counties, wants people to consider this topic because he wants them to consider the foundation of America’s ethical principles.

“The national narrative that we extoll is that America was founded on ethical principles born out of religious freedom and fervor, with the moral imperative of justice for all,” Martin said. “But how accurate is this narrative?” 

This quote hung above the Amphitheater stage, shown for all to see on its several huge screens. The word “ethical” was clearly underlined. 

“As you get through this lecture and hear about the Doctrine of Discovery, maybe that might be something to reconsider,” he said. 

Martin presented this argument at 1 p.m. in the Amp on Tuesday, July 20 in his lecture titled “The Doctrine of Discovery: An Unjust Imperative, Born Out of Religious Justification — A Presentation of the Tragic and Lasting Consequences of Supremacy,” part of Week Four’s Interfaith Lecture Series themed “The Evolving Religious Narrative of America.”

“I hear this idea of religious freedom a lot,” Martin said. “Often times it’s ‘Don’t impede on my religious freedom, but if I express my religious freedom, I have to suppress your religious freedom.’ ”

Martin acknowledged there is a multifaith evolution occurring, but he said this wasn’t always necessary.

“If you think about that, it’s true, but if we were accepting that there were others not a part of our faith from day one, we wouldn’t need an evolution,” he said. “We could’ve accepted there were others, separate but equal.”

Historically, in a religious context, some have seen themselves as supreme over others, Martin said. This mindset has caused consequences spanning back hundreds of years to the present day, he said.

Martin started in the 15th century when people began using religious and legal grounds for justifying the seizure of foreign lands if no Christians lived there. 

In 1452, Pope Nicholas V commanded King Alfonso V of Portugal to “invade, capture, vanquish and subdue all saracens and pagans” in Africa on the basis of religion, Martin said. 

Forty years later, Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue in search of a shortcut to India. Although he actually landed in North America, he believed at first he reached India and called the people he encountered “Indians.”

“This is why we’re called Indians,” Martin said. “Native groups say, ‘We’re not even Indians.’ That was our first misclassification that we carry on to this day.”

Martin then noted the pushback against celebrating Columbus Day because, although Columbus introduced the Americas to those back in Europe, he also introduced slavery and devastation across Indigenous Americans. 

He joked that on Columbus Day, people should celebrate by going to any store, declare that they discovered an item and take it home for free. 

“It’s basically the same premise,” he said. “It takes away Native Indigenous rights to own the land. Even in the U.S., the premise is that the land is no longer ours and is forever ceded — just by the idea they discovered us.”

Another historical example with present-day consequences was the 1494 Treaty of Tordesillas. At this time, the New World was divided between Spain and Portugal, Martin said. This new treaty gave Portugal some extra land in South America, in what is now Brazil. Today, Brazil speaks Portuguese, while the rest of the continent largely speaks Spanish.

In 1496, King Henry VII of England began using religious justification for seizing land, Martin said. 

In 1514, “The Requerimiento,” which translates to “Requirement,” added an extra step for explorers, having them read a document to Indigenous Americans of Spain’s legal and moral right to rule over the inhabitants. If they did not agree, they would be enslaved, Martin said. 

“If I came to you in my native language and smiled while doing it, your good hearts might open your doors and say, ‘Oh look at this poor person traveling who must be lost. He must need a place to stay. Let’s try to give him food and understand him,’ ” Martin said. “Then, I continue to stay, and after a while you wonder when I’ll leave.”

Continuing the hypothetical, Martin said he’d become more testy and start threatening and killing his hosts’ family. If he were to be attacked back, he would call his hosts savages. 

“It sounds crazy, right? It sounds odd,” he said. “It’s the same basic principles of the Doctrine of Discovery.”

Martin listed 10 elements of the Doctrine of Discovery: The first defined Christianity as the basic justification. The second element was civilization, and who gets to determine what and who was civilized.

“This was where we got into these elements of supremacy,” he said, “to say a way of life for somebody else is less than yours.”

The third and fourth elements were first discovery and actual occupancy and possession. First discovery is based on Columbus, which led to more sanctioned trips from more countries to occupy and possess the land, without regard to Indigenous people who already occupied it, Martin said.

Similarly, the fifth element of preemption allowed European countries to claim rights to the land, which led to the sixth element: Indigenous people lost any right or title to the land, he said.

The seventh element gave Indigenous people no right to trade, Martin said. 

In the eighth element, contiguity, one could go to the mouth of a river and claim they own the entire river, he said. 

“Imagine landing in New Orleans and saying, ‘Ah, this (is the) Mississippi River. I’m going to lay claim to its beginning without any occupancy or exploration,’ ” Martin said. 

The ninth element said if no Christians occupied the land, it could be considered vacant or empty, and the 10th and final element defined conquest, which added a religious justified military framework. 

Michael Martin, Executive Director of Native American Community Services, during an interfaith lecture Tuesday July 20, 2021 in the Amphitheater. KRISTEN TRIPLETT/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

Martin, part of the Haudenosaunee people, said his ancestors believed everyone had the same original instructions based on their creation story. 

In his condensed version of the story, he described a pregnant woman falling from the sky world to the earth, which was entirely made of water. Birds saved her, and a giant turtle then allowed her a place to rest. All the sea animals swam to the bottom of the ocean to gather dirt to make the turtle’s back softer, but only one survived. 

After dumping the dirt on the turtle, the woman began walking counterclockwise, and the land began to expand.

She gave birth to a daughter, who eventually gave birth to two twin sons, with one born naturally and the other coming out of her armpit area, killing her. Plants began sprouting from her grave, so she is called Mother Earth, he said. 

One of these sons creates four humans, Martin said, who are given the same instructions on how to live and treat others and the natural world. These four were then sent off in four different directions. A prophecy claims they would come back to share what they learned for the sake of humanity. 

Martin noted there are 13 plates in the middle of a turtle’s back and 28 on the outside. The 28 are used for the lunar calendar, and he said of Earth’s tectonic plates, 13 are the homes of human beings. He said we all have the same original instructions from those four humans. 

Based on this story, his ancestors accepted all foreigners as humans with the same basic needs. 

“Our ancestors didn’t see it as a father-and-son relationship, but brothers and sisters,” he said.

His organization, the Native American Community Services of Erie and Niagara Counties, is focused on trauma-informed care, which he said is asking people not what’s wrong with them, but rather what happened to them. 

He said everyone experiences trauma, which can be current, like a car accident or post-traumatic stress disorder from war, or it can be intergenerational, stemming from historical trauma.

Sympathetic to the trauma of Native people, he wondered what trauma those in early Europe might have faced, which would have influenced their actions and behaviors in the Doctrine of Discovery.

In northern Europe, he said, where harsh winters took over the land, people were forced to hunt and harvest well to survive the winter. According to a documentary he watched, Martin said, those who didn’t do well would attack their nearest neighbor to survive. 

“This starts an age of living in excess — because you need to have enough for yourself and if you get attacked,” he said.

He finds this idea of excess and supremacy harmful to both humans and wild animals. 

Martin then shifted his focus to land claims, noting that consequences of colonization are not just from 15th-century documents. 

He cited the 1823 Johnson v. M’Intosh U.S. Supreme Court case, where one person purchased land through Native people and another purchased the same land through the federal government. Chief Justice John Marshall cited the Doctrine of Discovery, saying that even though Native Americans occupied the land, it was considered unoccupied because they were not Christians, Martin said.

This decision, Martin said, has been cited in courts around the world ever since. In another case, City of Sherrill v. Oneida Indian Nation New York, in 2005, the Doctrine of Discovery is referenced in the first footnote.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote that majority opinion.

“These courts weren’t made for us,” Martin said.

Another example Martin gave was the largest mass execution in U.S. history, in 1862, when President Abraham Lincoln ordered the execution of 38 Dakota tribe members accused of rebellion. This was in contrast to Lincoln’s treatment of white secessionists in the wake of the Civil War.

Martin hopes people come back to creation and original instructions.

“Are we all brothers and sisters, or is that just something we say?” he said. 

There have been instances of repudiation, he said, such as the United Nations’ 2007 Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. A few years later, 13 Catholic groups were in solidarity with Indigenous peoples’ request of asking Pope Francis to rescind 15th-century declarations, Martin said. 

“We need to focus on our common humanity, and we need to live in balance and harmony to achieve peace and wellbeing,” he said. “When I talk about peace, it’s balance and harmony within ourselves, with each other and with all of the natural world. Let’s always remember, and no longer forget, our common humanity. And please also don’t forget: We all smile in the same language.”

Eboo Patel charts new chapter in U.S. religious history

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MAX ZAMBRANO – STAFF WRITER

Eboo Patel, founder and president of the Interfaith Youth Core, delivers his lecture “Interfaith America” Monday, July 19, 2021 in the Amphitheater. DAVE MUNCH/PHOTO EDITOR

When the pilgrims arrived at Plymouth Rock in 1620, they were shocked to brush it off and see the words “Judeo-Christian nation” written on the stone.

Eboo Patel knew he couldn’t fool his Chautauquan audience with this fictional narrative, but he said they should see how 18-year-olds, even at prestigious universities, respond with some confusion to this story. 

The idea of the United States being a Judeo-Christian nation, however, is a bit of a myth, Patel said. 

“ ‘Judeo-Christian nation’ was invented about 90 years ago,” he said. “Somebody made it up.”

It was part of America’s unfolding, evolving story of religious diversity, he said. After nearly a century, Patel said it is time to create a new myth. Patel explored this notion at 1 p.m. in the Amphitheater on Monday, July 19 in his lecture titled “Interfaith America,” which he said is what people should call this next chapter for America’s religious story. It was the first of three Week Four Interfaith Lectures, themed “The Evolving Religious Narrative of America.”

Patel works in this field — he is the founder and president of the Interfaith Youth Core, a national nonprofit which cooperates with higher education and corporations to create the next set of leaders in a religiously diverse world, according to its website.

Just because this most recent chapter of America’s religious history was made up by men in the 1930s does not make it useless, Patel said. He is also not suggesting we cancel this chapter, but rather continue the story. But first, he explained why this chapter was written.

When New York Gov. Al Smith won the Democratic Party’s 1928 presidential nomination, he became the first Catholic of any major party to win the nomination. At this time, Patel said there were millions involved in the Ku Klux Klan and anti-Semitic groups.

“ ‘If he wins,’ they said, ‘he will send a one-word telegram to the Pope: ‘Unpack,’ ” Patel said, saying that people feared a Catholic president would allow the Pope to run the country. These efforts consequently led to Smith’s loss to Herbert Hoover that year, and groups like the National Conference on Christians and Jews — now the National Conference on Community and Justice — felt they needed to change this narrative.  

They put on activities aimed at uniting religions, such as trialogues between rabbis, priests and pastors, Patel said. Despite increased efforts through the next several years, the next president, Franklin Roosevelt, said America was a Protestant nation. Those trying to change this narrative came to a realization. 

“They recognized, frankly, that no amount of civil activity, no matter how important, would shift the image of the nation the way new language can,” he said. 

So, the myth of the United States being a Judeo-Christian nation was created, Patel said. 

“They wrote a myth at a hinge point in American history,” he said. “We’re at another hinge point. We have the chance to be authors of something remarkable — of the next chapter.”

Eboo Patel, founder and president of the Interfaith Youth Core, delivers his lecture “Interfaith America” Monday, July 19, 2021 in the Amphitheater. DAVE MUNCH/PHOTO EDITOR

Patel finds this new chapter particularly important because as issues surrounding diversity stay at the forefront of conversation, he said he notices a lack of conversation surrounding religious diversity. To explain, he referenced colleges’ first-year student orientations.

“Those three or four days, the college tells incoming students, ‘This is who we are,’ ” Patel said. “Wherever I might be, I ask how much of the time is given to diversity issues. Provosts, presidents, deans of students and sophomores will proudly tell me 50-60%.”

Of the approximately two days worth of time devoted to diversity, Patel then asks how much is devoted to religious diversity.

“Everybody gets real quiet,” he said. “So tell me, does it not matter that we live in the most religiously diverse nation in human history? In the most religiously devout country in the Western Hemisphere?”

Patel believes it is worth pursuing an interfaith America. David French, who spoke in Tuesday’s Chautauqua Lecture Series, notes that the 13 colonies were combatants in the European wars of religion, Patel said, yet they agreed to build a nation together. Patel extended this idea saying that the country’s founders recognized a danger with factions and sects, but it could work under pluralism.

“(They said) if we allow everyone in and (give them) an equal place at the table with religion, they will work it out and build it together,” Patel said.

Fair dealings across religions was seen well before the United States became a country, Patel said, referencing Roger Williams, who he said mutually engaged with Narragansett Indians, where both parties learned from one another. Williams ultimately founded Providence Plantations on the basis of broader religious freedom — this land is now the state of Rhode Island.

“All of this is to say that, as T.S. Eliot remarked, ‘We Americans inherit something remarkable when it comes to articulations of what religious pluralism could be. What are we doing that makes ourselves worthy of that inheritance?’ ” Patel said.

This led Patel to his next point, the civic contributions of religious communities. He asked everyone to imagine themselves in the center of their city, and to imagine that every institution founded by a religious community disappeared overnight.

Of course, he said, places of worship would disappear.

“What else happens when houses of worship go away?” he asked. “Where do AA meetings meet? Who fills the backpacks of the kids who get free school lunch during the week and are wondering where their weekend meals are going to come from? What runs the Thanksgiving turkey drives? Who runs the tutoring programs?”

In addition, Patel said numerous hospitals and colleges would disappear; think Loyola University Medical Center, Northwestern Memorial Hospital (where Patel’s wife went to school and where his children were born, respectively), Duke University, Emory University, Notre Dame University, Georgetown University — and Chautauqua Institution. 

Eboo Patel, founder and president of the Interfaith Youth Core, delivers his lecture “Interfaith America” Monday, July 19, 2021 in the Amphitheater. DAVE MUNCH/PHOTO EDITOR

Without these civic contributions from religious communities, Patel said democracy cannot exist.

“In a democracy, no president, no general, no mayor says that you have to gather, that you have to have a Chautauqua, that you have to come together in a potluck, that you have to build a private hospital or school that serves everybody,” he said. “The people build those things.”

Interfaith America already exists, Patel said, as the country already has an equal number — 4 million — of evangelical Lutherans, Muslims and Buddhists. The average age of evangelical Lutherans in America is in the 50s, while Muslims and Buddhists average in their 30s, Patel said. 

Furthermore, Patel said the most religiously diverse demographic in the U.S. is 18-29 years old.

“You are just as likely in some parts of the country to run into an Ali as an Al,” he said.

To gauge what the country will look like in the next several decades, Patel said to look at the demographics in one’s local preschool, close to areas where refugees have resettled.

“That’s what America looks like now, and what the rotary club will look like in 30-40 years,” he said. “Those will be civic, business and political leaders.”

Although it’s time for a new chapter in America’s religious history, Patel acknowledged the Judeo-Christian narrative worked.

“Do you remember the dozens of articles that sounded the alarm about Joe Biden’s Catholicism and (that) he would be in cahoots with the Pope to run the country?” he asked as the Amp responded with silence. “That’s because they didn’t exist.”

Patel then noted that people looked at him differently for being named Eboo instead of Ed during high school, 23 years ago, but he said it shouldn’t be this way. 

“That’s why frames matter so much,” he said. “That’s why myths matter so much. They write people into the story. They say to the teacher who couldn’t get my name right that the problem is not my name — I have an American name — it’s your pronunciation. You should’ve prepared for me.”

Changing the story not only impacts the present, but also how people perceive the past, Patel said. The enslaved people shipped from West Africa to North America were likely whispering the Shahada, or profession of faith in Islam, on their ships, he said. Moreover, the Blue Note, commonly used in jazz music, is believed to come from those who listened to enslaved people chant the Adaan, or Muslim call to prayer.

Patel said this widens the story of America’s religious history, realizing where aspects of culture derive.

Lastly, Patel said it was simply important to give a name to something even if it already exists. 

He described a scenario where friends gather, one with a wooden stick and the other with a white ball, and each day they would meet with other friends and conjure up rules about hitting the ball, what happened if it was caught, and so on. Instead of explaining the rules each day, the hypothetical group should just call it baseball, wrapping all the rules into one word. 

“It makes it cohesive,” Patel said. “It makes it whole.” 

Calling this next chapter of America’s religious history “Interfaith America” takes what the country is and makes it whole and cohesive, he said.

“Our ancestors wrote a myth that served us well over a century,” he said. “It’s time for us to write another that will serve generations of the future.” 

Trinity Forum President Cherie Harder discusses importance of deeply reading stories in combating loneliness and confusion

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MAX ZAMBRANO – STAFF WRITER

Cherie Harder, president of the Trinity Forum, delivers her lecture “Reading for Justice” Wednesday, July 14, 2021 in the Amphitheater. DAVE MUNCH/PHOTO EDITOR

Deep reading and storytelling are more than just for personal enjoyment. They can be the ticket to a flourishing community, said Trinity Forum President Cherie Harder. 

“I’m not saying a good book, well read, will resolve long struggles against oppression and mistreatment, change laws, elect leaders, restore victims or even prove a useful tool for activism,” Harder said. 

But, Harder said, immersive, empathetic reading, particularly of stories, can develop a person’s character in a way that helps sustain order. 

Harder discussed this suggestion at 1 p.m. on Wednesday, July 14 in the Amphitheater in her lecture “Reading for Justice,” the final installment of Week Three’s  Interfaith Lecture Series theme of “The Ethical Foundations of a Fully Functioning Society.”

She’s well accustomed to using storytelling as a way to tackle life’s toughest questions.

“(The Trinity Forum) seeks to provide a place for leaders to grapple with the big questions of life, in the context of faith, in order to better come to know the author of the answers, as well as to live and lead widely and well,” Harder said. “One of the chief ways we do this is (to) expose people to the best of literature and letters, and engage them in discussing stories.”

Reading well and living well are linked concepts, Harder said, but it can seem such a simple idea that one takes it for granted. We are seeing this in the United States now, she said, and for the last couple decades.

Among all age groups, reading rates have fallen significantly over the last quarter century, she said. One-half of young adults do not read any literature, and only slightly above one-third of adults read one piece of literature last year. 

“This is true despite e-readers, Kindles, apps and all sorts of ways that essentially make it easier than ever to read,” she said.

Cherie Harder, president of the Trinity Forum, delivers her lecture “Reading for Justice” Wednesday, July 14, 2021 in the Amphitheater. DAVE MUNCH/PHOTO EDITOR

In the academic and nonprofit sectors, too, Harder said storytelling is being deemed unimportant, or practically nonexistent in some cases. Instead, science, technology, engineering and mathematics are being valued as the most, or only, reliable measurement. 

“If we put all our value in what can be measured, there tends to be an increasing bias toward that which is more easily measured,” Harder said, noting quantitative data, like data and statistics, is usually viewed as more important than qualitative data, like anecdotal stories.

Young adults may not be reading literature, but they are consuming media — eight hours a day on average, Harder said, often with multiple forms of media on at once. While watching a TV show or movie, people are simultaneously listening to music or a podcast, not to mention texting all the while. 

Meanwhile, Harder said young adults spend, on average, nine minutes a day reading. The impacts of electronic media consumption go beyond reading habits, she said.

“Crowded out by an increased reliance on electronic media has not only been reading, but exercising, sleeping and socializing in person,” she said.

Moreover, Harder said social media may preclude certain discussions, thus impacting who one communicates with and how. Quoting the Catholic theorist Marshall McLuhan, Harder noted: “The medium is the message.”

Facebook and Twitter can be useful tools, she acknowledged, such as being ways to keep people in touch during the COVID-19 pandemic and for distributing vaccine information. But, tools can be misused. For one, overuse of social media can foster loneliness.

Nearly half of all U.S. citizens report feeling left out, lonely or alienated, Harder said, also stating that according to Psychology Today, rates of loneliness in the country have doubled in the last 50 years.

Loneliness is toxic, she continued, claiming some studies found it as physically damaging as smoking or obesity, and can lead to diseases like cancer, heart disease, Alzheimer’s, diabetes and more. 

Perceptions of loneliness correlates with time spent on social media, Harder said, meaning it is particularly affecting young people. 

Harder said this phenomenon has created an epistemic crisis. Epistemology is the study of how humans know things to be true. 

Citing an MIT study, Harder said false stories were 70% more likely to be retweeted than true ones, and fake news spread almost five times faster than real news.

“Worst of all, this isn’t just the result of bots,” she said. “This is us doing this.”

Cherie Harder, president of the Trinity Forum, delivers her lecture “Reading for Justice” Wednesday, July 14, 2021 in the Amphitheater. DAVE MUNCH/PHOTO EDITOR

Harder said this challenge of deciphering what is true and false may be one of the more challenging phenomena in U.S. history. 

“Social media is tailor-made for (polarization),” she said. “There’s been talk about how much media keeps us angry and fearful, and of course this is a great way to make bank on the currency of social media, which is attention.”

Social media sparks group polarization, she said, causing groups of like-minded people to find and agree on continuously more extreme perspectives. She compared it to elections where primaries tend to be focused on the more extreme ends of one party, but then ideas return to the center during general elections.

Furthermore, social media algorithms, which influence what each individual person sees catered toward what they usually interact with on social platforms, create echo chambers that drive up polarization, Harder said. 

“A recent poll found large numbers of people on political extremes — 20% of one party and 15% of the other — thought the country would be better if large numbers of the other side simply died,” Harder said. 

Storytelling and deep reading can change how people understand information, however.

“A story engages the whole person in ways that social media, arguments and propositions do not,” she said. “Stories cultivate one’s imagination and reason.”

Stories do this, she said, by forcing the reader to envision characters, dynamics and a world seen through someone else’s eyes. 

“It may be one reason why Jesus taught almost entirely in stories or parables,” Harder said. “The gospels themselves are largely the stories of the stories he told.”

Harder said Jesus’ stories often brought women, samaritans and shepherds, or those at the lowest end of the social hierarchy, to the forefront. 

In another example, Harder mentioned the character Eustace Clarence Scrubb from C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. She said it was clear from the outset he was not the story’s hero, because he was described as someone who never read about anything beyond imports, exports and plumbing drains.

In the story, Scrubb finds himself in a dragon’s lair, and because he never read stories about dragons, he did not know what to do in that scenario, Harder said. 

Cherie Harder, president of the Trinity Forum, delivers her lecture “Reading for Justice” Wednesday, July 14, 2021 in the Amphitheater. DAVE MUNCH/PHOTO EDITOR

Harder said reading fiction helps people understand why life’s biggest questions require more than quantitative analysis.

“That kind of imaginative thinking helps form a sense of the wisest course of action and what a wise character is, as well,” she said.

Harder said stories teach courage and bravery, such as the Anne of Green Gables, which taught her what resilience could look like for a 12-year-old girl. 

Great stories, Harder said, have a journey with an uncertain conclusion, and there are sometimes tragic ones about someone not having the courage to do what they should, or taking a cowardly way out. 

“That, in some ways, is why storytelling helps us conquer fear,” she said. “By naming it, we imagine a new way of responses and put ourselves in a position to make responses.”

Stories also teach empathy, Harder said, by entering a new world and trying to understand another person’s emotions. Numerous studies have found avid fiction readers are often more empathetic and respond more wisely to the emotions of others.

“It reveals the vulnerabilities of those we thought powerful, the tender points of hard people, the secret loves of the inscrutable and the character fissures of those we thought probity,” Harder said.

Reading and stories can also help people recognize injustice, such as with Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Harder said. 

Beyond simply reading stories, how one reads is also important, she said. 

“One of the challenges of social media is that it encourages a certain kind of reading which is very useful for certain reasons and tasks,” she said. “It encourages quick skimming, a rapid, almost strip mining of surface information that one can take, use, instrumentalize and, often on Twitter, weaponize.” 

Deep reading, instead, allows the reader to imaginatively enter a world where they must imagine characters, their thoughts and the setting, she said. She contended this is why common ancient metaphors say one enters, eats or breathes the text. Reading does not solely engage the reader, but impacts their morals, Harder said.

“How we choose to read, how we submit to or question or resist the terms set by the writer, are choices that shape the habits of our minds and the habits of our hearts,” she said. “Those habits often determine the degree to which we are open to truth in its various guises.”

Cherie Harder, president of the Trinity Forum, delivers her lecture “Reading for Justice” Wednesday, July 14, 2021 in the Amphitheater. DAVE MUNCH/PHOTO EDITOR

Harder said deep reading requires one to tune out distractions. 

“One might ask, ‘What, then, can we do?’ ” she said. “I’m certainly not alone in hearing the siren song of Twitter call me to whatever might be there. My husband will often call me back.”

She listed a few techniques and practices people can use to help them read deeply.

First, she said, is to set aside time for reading and to make it a priority.

Second, reading well requires deliberative thought, so one should slow down and take time to reflect on what they are reading. Additionally, people can reread passages or entire books.

“I’m sure many of you have had the experience of rereading a book a couple decades after you first read it, and being shocked by how much that book seemed to change,” she said, highlighting how life experiences can change how one interacts with a book.

Third, is forming a reading group of three or more people. Reading groups, Harder said, are an opportunity for people to gather, perhaps over a bottle of wine and a cheese plate, to focus their attention on an important text. In addition, getting together in person allows people to face the problem of loneliness she highlighted earlier in her lecture.

Fourth, one can write. Harder said writing is a way of producing culture and helps people appreciate how hard it is to write well. 

“Reading well is a precondition for writing well,” she said. “One does not happen without the other.”

The effort of deep reading, especially of stories, can push back against the current cultural climate of increasing polarization, loneliness and confusion, she said.

“So why should we read stories? And why should we read deeply?” Harder asked. “To live more empathetically, imaginatively and bravely. To discern justice and falsehood and to contribute to a community where justice can flourish.”

‘Sum of Us’ author Heather McGhee shares stories of racial equality, inequality — as well as ideas, vision for America’s future

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MAX ZAMBRANO – STAFF WRITER

New York Times best-selling author of The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Heather McGhee delivers her Interfaith Lecture Tuesday in the Amphitheater. KRISTEN TRIPLETT/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

For 20 years, Heather McGhee was an “economic policy wonk,” as she put it. 

Working at the think-tank Demos and earning a juris doctorate degree from Yale University, McGhee spent those decades focused on understanding how and why the United States struggled with issues ranging from affordable health care, child care and education, to a lack of climate change initiatives and restricting voting rights. 

“We, supposedly the greatest nation on the planet, are watching our infrastructure crumble,” she said. “It gets a D-plus from the American Society of Civil Engineers.”

Over the last 40 to 50 years, McGhee said, the economy has shifted from a football shape, where there was a strong middle class and narrow ends of low- and high-income citizens, to a bowtie shape with a narrow middle class and bulging ends of low- and high-income citizens. 

In 2017, McGhee stepped down as Demos president in order to answer the question of why the U.S. now supports policies that deliver tax cuts to the rich and stifles its middle class, she said, something her training and experience hadn’t quite taught her. 

She circumnavigated the country multiple times, talking to hundreds of people, she said, and then wrote down her answers in her February 2021 book, The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together.

McGhee, a regular guest on “Meet the Press,” “Morning Joe,” “Deadline White House” and “All In with Chris Hayes,” presented a few stories and findings from her travels and book on Tuesday, July 13 in the Amphitheater, part of Week Three’s Interfaith Lecture Series themed “The Ethical Foundations of a Fully Functioning Society.”

The first experience she shared, which was one of the first stops on her trek, came from a visit to the Harvard Business School in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

McGhee met with two scholars who walked through the methodologies and findings of a 2011 study titled “Whites See Racism as a Zero-Sum Game they are Now Losing.” Zero-sum means one’s gain is another’s loss, such as the U.S. House of Representatives — every 10 years, some states gain more representation, while others must lose to keep the number at 435. 

Seeing this zero-sum theory applied to race, a light bulb went off in McGhee’s head. White people, in general, believe a dollar more in other pockets meant a dollar less in theirs, an anxiety stoked by right-wing politics of the Obama era and flamed by the winners-and-losers, us-versus-them rhetoric of the Trump presidency, McGhee said.

However, McGhee said it was not a zero-sum game. 

“If we’re on a team, and we have so many players sidelined due to debt, discrimination and disadvantage, then they can’t be on the field scoring points for the team,” she said. 

At some point, she said, a story began that not everyone was on the same team, and some believe it. McGhee wanted to find that origin. 

For one, she said zero-sum ideology couldn’t be natural. Although humans do compete, she said people of color view the world far less in an us-versus-them mentality.

“We generally don’t see that our progress has to come at the expense of white folks,” she said. “We see the world more through a win-win, mutual interest ethos.”

New York Times best-selling author of The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Heather McGhee delivers her Interfaith Lecture Tuesday in the Amphitheater. KRISTEN TRIPLETT/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

This story, McGhee said, was invented at the outset of the country’s economic model during a time of colonization, when enslaved people and indentured workers with no land were forced to work for the rewards of their owners. 

“That spoiled system, that allowed so much concentration of land and power for so little work from people who were owners in that society, was always at risk,” she said. “The few are always going to be at risk of the oppressed many.”

McGhee grappled — particularly as a descendant of enslaved people — with the realization that the system did not have to be a zero-sum scenario. Using “radical imagination,” she said one must consider what the country would look like otherwise.

She described this system as one of the worst elements of our society, which benefits only a few instead of serving a nation full of people from around the world.

The zero-sum system has been maintained through continuous division, exploitation and oppression, she said, through the Industrial Era and into the present day. 

Another light bulb turned on in Montgomery, Alabama, McGhee said. Here sits Oak Park, part of a nationwide New Deal creation of public resources and amenities. 

“Public parks, bridges, libraries …” McGhee said, pausing. “And swimming pools.”

In this era, the government was committed to providing a decent standard of living to its people, including social security for the elderly, large numbers of subsidized affordable housing for workers and government subsidies  which allowed working class citizens to mortgage their own homes. 

McGhee said these plans included the G.I. Bill, allowing veterans to attend college for free. Additionally, people had more power to negotiate wages. 

“It was the highest standard of living in the world in the early 1950s,” she said. “Yet, virtually everything I just described was racially exclusionary.” 

Social security, for one, excluded agricultural and domestic work, the two largest sectors of Black workers, McGhee said. The federal government drew red “do not lend” lines around Black and brown neighborhoods on maps of the country. During the subsidization of affordable housing, developers were required to make homes available only for Caucasians. The G.I Bill appeared race neutral, but benefits were filtered through segregated sectors, she said.

New York Times best-selling author of The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Heather McGhee delivers her Interfaith Lecture Tuesday in the Amphitheater. KRISTEN TRIPLETT/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

As for the swimming pools, local ordinances and laws — or simply violence and intimidation — kept Black residents away. 

“Even though generations of Black Americans had contributed to these public goods through tax dollars and hard work, they were often — usually — excluded,” McGhee said.

During her walk through Oak Park, McGhee stepped on and around a large grassy section, once home to the park’s public pool. On Jan. 1, 1959, facing threats to integrate the pool, Montgomery’s all-white city council unanimously voted to close the pool, McGhee said. The city’s parks and recreation department was shut down for a decade.

“They even sold off the animals in the zoo, y’all,” McGhee said.

The same decision to close public pools and other spaces was not singular to Montgomery, but occurred all over the country — from Baltimore to Washington State to New Jersey, Ohio and West Virginia, to name a few, McGhee said. 

“This idea of drained-pool politics helped … explain how we went from a country that invested trillions, in inflation-adjusted dollars, in high economic opportunity and security … to embracing the kinds of drained-pool policies that moved things from public goods to private costs,” she said.

The idea that upper-middle-class families would rather build private pools in their backyards or purchase private pool memberships made sense to McGhee because of research she did on higher education at Demos. 

McGhee was curious why free college disappeared in the U.S. She said between the 1970s and ‘90s, when a college degree became essential to accessing middle-class security, the government began draining its pool of resources. 

She said Black families have the largest burden of student loan debt, and that eight out of 10 must borrow money to attend college. However, six out of 10 white families now have to borrow, too, she said.

“When you drain the pool of public goods, the costs go up for everyone,” she said.

Another example she gave was the United States’ historic lack of universal health care. President Harry Truman, she said, pushed for the measure only to be shut down by the Southern Dixiecrat caucus of his own party. The Affordable Care Act, colloquially known as “Obamacare,” was opposed by a party that sold its message in racialized terms, McGhee said.

“Today, white Americans are still the largest group of those who go without health insurance, and yet the majority of white Americans have been disapproving of ‘Obamacare’ since it was signed into law,” she said.

The Supreme Court, McGhee said, struck down an expansion of Medicaid that would have raised the level of the Affordable Care Act’s eligibility to more members of the middle class — she argued this would have benefited fast food and retail workers whose employers do not provide health care benefits.

“We saw they used a states’ rights theory to say the federal government had no right to expand Medicaid in every state,” she said. “And what ended up happening? We saw a new kind of Mason-Dixon Line of health care where most of the former Confederate states said, ‘No, thank you,’ and most of the northern states said, ‘Sure.’ ”

Drained-pool politics, then, is the answer of why the U.S. devolved from the greatest middle class in the world to the modern developed world’s most unequal society, McGhee said.

She sees signs of hope across the country, however, sometimes in what she called the most unlikely of places. McGhee calls these signs “solidarity dividends,” or the idea these gains can only come through multiracial teams finding common solutions to common problems.

For example, in Kansas City, McGhee met a fast food worker, a white woman who, for most of her life, believed in the zero-sum theory. 

“She was anti-immigrant,” McGhee said. “She thought that Black people were cheating, were lazy, were on welfare, and yet she also — I think in many ways because of that embrace of the hierarchy of human value — didn’t believe that her own labor would ever be worth more than $7.25 an hour, even though she worked so hard and struggled with her husband and three children to make ends meet.”

Approached by a coworker who said they were organizing a fight for $15 an hour, the woman initially felt undeserving and unmotivated, but she attended the first organizational meeting anyway. 

New York Times best-selling author of The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Heather McGhee delivers her Interfaith Lecture Tuesday in the Amphitheater. KRISTEN TRIPLETT/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

At that meeting, a Latina woman told her story, one of a life trapped in a two-bedroom apartment with three kids, a spouse and bad plumbing.

“(The fast food employee) told me, ‘I saw myself in her for the first time,’ ” McGhee said.

The woman signed up that night, and that organization won a ballot initiative in Kansas City to raise the minimum wage. McGhee said she is now one of the multiracial leaders across the country fighting for a $15-an-hour minimum wage.

Another story of solidarity dividends is based in Maine’s second-largest city of Lewiston, where alcoholism, loneliness, isolation, suicide and opioid addiction ran rampant. It was an old mill town, and it was dying, McGhee said. 

There, McGhee met two Franco-Canadian residents. Hoping to bring the town back to life, rather than succumb to addiction and loneliness, the two were willing to join forces with a new wave of residents, including Africans, Muslims, refugees and immigrants.

They began attending the French Club, McGhee said, where West Africans could reteach the two a language they ceased using to assimilate in the community. In community unity efforts, old and new Mainers joined forces and helped lead their soccer team to five state championships, based on immigrants’ and refugees’ love of the game, McGhee said. 

Now, McGhee said, Lewiston is a thriving city with new jobs, schools and a rekindled Main Street — once entirely boarded up, now filling back up with small businesses. 

Lewiston had a choice, McGhee said: to continue down its path, with the local mayor and governor continuing to drain the pool, or for other local leaders and white and Black workers to join together. She said she’s seen examples of Lewiston across the country. 

“I saw in people who put aside the zero-sum and linked arms across lines of race the glimpse and confidence of a new kind of America, unflinching, unafraid to own the full weight of our collective history, crystal clear eyes in whose interest that division has always been used,” McGhee said.

She said the old zero-sum story is one founded on lies that children don’t want and the planet cannot support. 

“In this spirit of rebirth and healing after a year and a half of national and global catastrophe, I’ve been going across the country, virtually, talking about ways we are stronger together, ways we can be more than the sum of our parts,” McGhee said, “when we reject the zero-sum lie and fight for a future in which we understand we are so much greater when we fight for the sum of us.”

In talk, Morehouse, Emory scholar Franklin offers questions, answers on regaining moral leadership

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MAX ZAMBRANO – STAFF WRITER

Robert M. Franklin Jr., author of “Moral Leadership: Integrity, Courage, Imagination” delivers his lecture “Does Moral Leadership Still Matter? How America Can Repair” Monday, July 12, 2021 in the Amphitheater. DAVE MUNCH/PHOTO EDITOR

Does moral leadership matter? Can the United States repair? The Rev. Robert M. Franklin Jr. wants to know.

These were questions he asked to open his 1 p.m. Interfaith Lecture in the Amphitheater on Monday, July 12. The lecture, named after those questions, was the first of three Interfaith Lectures in Week Three, themed “The Ethical Foundations of a Fully Functioning Society.” 

Franklin is the James T. and Berta R. Laney Professor in Moral Leadership and a Senior Advisor to the President at Emory University, and President Emeritus of Morehouse College in Atlanta. 

Addressing a familiar Chautauquan crowd — he was director of religion here from 2014 to 2017 and presented his first Chautauqua lecture in 2000 — Franklin shared his answers to questions at hand. 

Discovering what moral leaders do for communities galvanizes Franklin — he spent the last year writing a new book, Moral Leadership: Integrity, Courage, Imagination, based on notes, lectures and reflections from Chautauqua, Morehouse College and other experiences.

“This is the work that I think is the great challenge for us in this hour in history,” Franklin said.

Robert M. Franklin Jr., author of “Moral Leadership: Integrity, Courage, Imagination” delivers his lecture “Does Moral Leadership Still Matter? How America Can Repair” Monday, July 12, 2021 in the Amphitheater. DAVE MUNCH/PHOTO EDITOR

In 2020, Franklin ran for the U.S. House of Representatives, aiming to fill the remainder of the late Rep. John Lewis’ term. He ultimately lost that race, but took away valuable lessons for himself. 

One thing he learned, he said, was that there existed a public demand for leaders of integrity, courage and imagination, and for people who inspire others to become better versions of themselves.

Another lesson he learned was that individuals can change the narrative of life. 

“We may not be able to change the past, and there are a lot of painful stories, histories and facts that are a part of America’s past, and so much still a part of America’s present,” he said. “We cannot change the past, but we can change the value of the past. … The past can offer us gifts and can speak to us.”

Franklin said people can ask themselves what they can do for the good of their town, organization, congregation or nation to help influence or change the narrative. People need to be willing to say “no,” he said. 

A third lesson Franklin learned from the campaign was people perceive politics as a land of transaction. He believes, however, that it can be based on transformation. Instead of exchanging votes for promises, Franklin said he stepped out of the religious and academic circles where he was most familiar and listened to other communities.

He also took away the notion that ordinary citizens are more important than celebrity leaders, such as Gandhi or Nelson Mandela — which is why he thinks anyone can make a difference. 

Franklin looked back at the earliest of American politics. He said the early founders believed in moral leadership and virtues. 

These leaders were trained in classical traditions, he said, and the works of Plato and Aristotle. In this tradition, Franklin said the smartest, strongest minds were given power and celebrated, akin to how the world’s best athletes will be celebrated at the Tokyo Olympic Games later this month.

Conversely, these founders also believed in covenant traditions, or that God promised to love no matter what. Here, one doesn’t have to be the best in any category to participate, Franklin said. 

Robert M. Franklin Jr., author of “Moral Leadership: Integrity, Courage, Imagination” delivers his lecture “Does Moral Leadership Still Matter? How America Can Repair” Monday, July 12, 2021 in the Amphitheater. DAVE MUNCH/PHOTO EDITOR

“It’s wonderful we have these two vast storehouses of intellectual resources to draw from,” he said.

When thinking of celebrity leaders, Franklin wants people to consider beyond the most famous names and think of those in their communities who have said “no,” or resisted the status quo when they spotted wrongdoing. 

“What are you going to do next?” he asked. “What will you do with what you learn here at Chautauqua for a week devoted to trust and restoring trust? What is required for a fully functioning society in Pittsburgh, Erie, Orlando, Los Angeles or Atlanta? What’s required, and how can I contribute?”

Franklin discouraged simply waiting for an electable moral leader, and instead encouraged being the moral leader. In this, he referenced Martin Luther King Jr.’s sermon based on transformed nonconformists.

“This hour in history needs a dedicated circle of transformed nonconformists,” wrote King. “The saving of our world from impending doom will not come from actions of an adjusted majority, but from creative maladjustment of a transformed minority.”

Franklin acknowledged it is sometimes difficult, even for himself, to take on such pressure. He read a quote from Oscar Wilde that he said helps him get out of bed every morning.

“ ‘Every saint has a past, every sinner has a future,’ ” he read. “We get back out there because we all have a future.”

Franklin then turned to one of the United States’ most well-known monuments to leaders: Mount Rushmore. 

Mount Rushmore was designed in the early 20th century, when the country wasn’t building much, Franklin said. He noted the four presidents on the mountain — George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln — were not the only four leaders considered. 

When carving the mountain was being considered, Franklin said, builders wanted to invite people to visit the American West, or to go beyond the Mississippi River and Chicago at a time when automobiles and the family road trip were newly accessible to the American public. 

Lewis and Clark and their companion Sacagawea were considered as faces to blast into the mountainside. Oglala Lakota Chief Red Cloud was also considered because of his willingness to negotiate and share land. Susan B. Anthony, one of the pioneers of women’s suffrage, was also seriously considered, Franklin said. 

Instead, four presidents were selected.

“An interesting narrative emerged there,” he said. “Washington represented the founding of the nation, Jefferson the growth of the nation, Roosevelt the development, and Lincoln for his preservation of the nation.” 

Franklin also expressed his disappointment in this choice: “Women and people of color could have been carved into (that) mountain.”

Mount Rushmore’s sculptor, Gutzon Borglum, was originally asked to carve three “colossal” Confederate leaders into Stone Mountain, Georgia, just outside Atlanta. Borglum, Franklin said, “had something of a prickly personality.” He did not get along with the Stone Mountain Memorial Commission or Daughters of the Confederacy, Franklin said, so he was fired and eventually picked up to design Mount Rushmore — the project he is most remembered for.

Robert M. Franklin Jr., author of “Moral Leadership: Integrity, Courage, Imagination” delivers his lecture “Does Moral Leadership Still Matter? How America Can Repair” Monday, July 12, 2021 in the Amphitheater. DAVE MUNCH/PHOTO EDITOR

A few miles from Mount Rushmore, however, sits an uncompleted monument, the Crazy Horse Memorial, depicting Oglala Lakota warrior and leader Crazy Horse pointing to his land.

“Sometimes local memorials can be more inclusive and honest than national ones,” Franklin said.

Beyond inspiring others to be better versions of themselves, moral leaders hold people accountable, Franklin said. He mentioned Ella Baker, the only woman on the board of King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference. 

“She was the only person who could hold King accountable,” Franklin said.

Baker would push back on some of King’s ideas. She felt students should have more autonomy than what King originally wanted, and after he agreed, they formed the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Franklin said. 

In Franklin’s book, he said he wrote about the importance of institutions for students who did not have moral leaders. 

“Many kids are growing up in spaces with no reliable sources of authority — few caring adults or parents,” he said. “I watched, as president of Morehouse College, young men who said, ‘I grew up in a place where nobody cared that I was good at physics. It wasn’t until I arrived at Morehouse somebody noticed and celebrated.’ Institutions matter.”

Now, with a decline in trust of religious institutions and in the government, Franklin said, the business sector is emerging. He said, especially with younger people, consumers want to purchase products that express their values. 

One business leader he mentioned was Larry Fink, CEO of BlackRock, who several years ago began sending annual letters to other CEOs saying businesses needed to step up if the government would not. 

Fink, according to Franklin, wrote that businesses should care more about communities, climate change and race relations. Over time, more shareholders have agreed, Franklin said.

Another example was John Lewis’ New York Times letter, published on the day of his funeral, writing to young people, “Together, you can redeem the soul of our nation.”

Franklin closed his lecture asking if the U.S. can repair. There are troubling signs, he conceded by showing a map from the Southern Poverty Law Center illustrating a rise in hate groups across the country. 

He sees signs of hope, however. 

“One large-scale national survey showed that 77% of Americans believe that our differences are not so great that we cannot come together,” he said. “Seems to me that’s a lot to build on.”

Within the survey, he said, people on the far left or right will not soon join any unifying discussions, but the 77% in the middle are already at the table.

Turning to Americans’ understanding of democracy, he quoted W.E.B. Du Bois, the first Black man to earn a doctoral degree from Harvard University, in 1896, from Du Bois’ book The Souls of Black Folk. 

“This is a beautiful world,” Franklin read. “This is a beautiful America, which the founding fathers dreamed until their sons drowned it in the blood of slavery and devoured it in greed. Our children must rebuild it.”

A ‘trip’ through history: Gary Laderman connects drugs and religion in Interfaith Lecture

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MAX ZAMBRANO – STAFF WRITER

Gary Laderman, Goodrich C. White Professor of American Religious History and Cultures at Emory University, delivers his lecture “Faith in Drugs: America’s Religious Future” Wednesday, July 7, 2021 on the Amphitheater stage. DAVE MUNCH/PHOTO EDITOR

In the same way he would begin the opening lecture of his “Sacred Drugs” class at Emory University, Gary Laderman posed this question to a cooked, early July Amphitheater: How do you define religion? 

“I would venture to say there’s no doubt we would not all agree,” said Laderman, the Goodrich C. White Professor of American Religious History and Cultures at Emory. “We would have as many different answers as people here.”

Laderman noted, as Margarita Simon Guillory did in her Tuesday lecture, that religion is constantly changing. He rhetorically questioned if religion as a word and concept changed over time, and if so, what lies at its core — if there is a core. 

Religion, however, has always involved — in one way or another — drugs, Laderman said.

At 1 p.m. Wednesday, July 7 in the Amphitheater, Laderman presented his lecture, “Faith in Drugs: America’s Religious Future,” the final of Week Two’s Interfaith Lecture Series, themed “New Frontiers: Exploring the Future of Religion in America.” 

In defining religion, Laderman was admittedly hesitant — because before Western languages created the word “religion,” there was no word for it. 

“I think of religion in the same way Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart felt about pornography in a 1964 Supreme Court ruling: ‘I know it when I see it,’ ” Laderman said. 

He said that while many religions have at least one God, it was not necessarily required. Rather, Laderman looked deeper, at indigenous cultures, for instance, where spiritual practices were tied to everyday tasks like fishing and farming. 

In addition, Laderman said people are likely religious in ways they may not recognize. One might identify as a Reform Jew, he said, but there are more religious behaviors and experiences in their life. 

Religion crosses the entire spectrum of good and evil, so it is as much about harmony and transformation as it is about hatred and conflict, he said.

“Humans are fundamentally religious,” he said. “It’s part of what being human is.” 

Atheists push back on this testament, Laderman said, but he argued that by going beyond the notion of God, one would find daily parts of life contain elements of religion. 

One example unrelated to drugs is the Pledge of Allegiance, Laderman said. Furthermore, presidents always use religious language to promote the United States as a sacred, revered place in the world. 

Then, Laderman took the Amp on a trip.

Gary Laderman, Goodrich C. White Professor of American Religious History and Cultures at Emory University, delivers his lecture “Faith in Drugs: America’s Religious Future” Wednesday, July 7, 2021 on the Amphitheater stage. DAVE MUNCH/PHOTO EDITOR

He read a quote from University of California, Los Angeles,  psychopharmacologist Ronald Siegel’s book Intoxication: The Universal Drive for Mind-Altering Substances, in which he writes about human evolution and humans’ passion for drugs.

“Our nervous system, like those of rodents and primates, is arranged to respond to chemical intoxicants in much the same way it responds to rewards of food, drink and sex,” according to Siegel’s book. “Throughout our entire history as a species, intoxication has functioned like the basic drives of hunger, thirst and sex.”

Laderman contended some of his propositions might be “wacko, far-out theories,” but some are rooted in science, medicine, history and religious studies. 

Some scholars, he said, argue humans accidentally consumed psychoactive drugs, perhaps by eating a mushroom, and this birthed religious experiences and sensibilities. 

He pointed to soma in Hinduism, a plant offered to the gods during a sacrifice, and then consumed by the preacher and sacrificer, which likely offered hallucinogenic effects. Laderman also said recent archaeological discoveries show cannabis was used in some ancient Asian rituals. Ancient Greece used wine during different rituals, too, he said. 

This wine was not only different than modern wine, he said, but some argue — controversially — that it contained psychedelics and hallucinogens, right at the beginning of Christianity. 

Gary Laderman, Goodrich C. White Professor of American Religious History and Cultures at Emory University, delivers his lecture “Faith in Drugs: America’s Religious Future” Wednesday, July 7, 2021 on the Amphitheater stage. DAVE MUNCH/PHOTO EDITOR

Looking at the Americas, Laderman said there are numerous plants with psychoactive chemicals, like ayahuasca and peyote, involved in indigenous ritual.

“This linkage between religion and culture shouldn’t be surprising,” Laderman said. “It is clear that religious life — at certain times, places and circumstances — was tied to the consumption of drugs.”

Laderman, referencing historian Marcy Norton’s book, Sacred Gifts, Profane Pleasures: A History of Tobacco and Chocolate in the Atlantic World, noted that in the pre-Columbian Americas, tobacco and chocolate (which is a psychoactive drug) linked humans to divine forces and the cosmos. But, in post-Columbian Europe, these same drugs were seen as undermining institutional Christianity.

“For one culture, these were divine and revered plants that can help people connect to the cosmos,” Laderman said. “In another culture, it was a sign of the devil.”

Drugs became part of capitalist, colonialist Europe, Laderman said, under the same pretenses of racism that claimed societies in the Americas were inferior to that of Western Europe. These same notions applied to Christian greed, he said.

Religion is even rooted in fighting drug addiction, Laderman said, such as 12-step programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous. AA’s second step requires participants to acknowledge a power greater than themselves.

Laderman then focused on the future of drugs and religion in the U.S.

“Religion ain’t the same as it was a decade or two ago,” he said. 

A few factors here are generational change, increasing politicization of religion and popular culture, he said.

Celebrities have provided answers to people asking questions about aging, death and ideals people strive for in life, Laderman said, and this may be occurring more frequently from celebrities than preachers or rabbis. 

Laderman argued there is no center of religion. 

“Religion, for me, is about the body, so what sacred sources help us cope with our bodies?” he said. “Where do we see that happening?”

Gary Laderman, Goodrich C. White Professor of American Religious History and Cultures at Emory University, delivers his lecture “Faith in Drugs: America’s Religious Future” Wednesday, July 7, 2021 on the Amphitheater stage. DAVE MUNCH/PHOTO EDITOR

Laderman then posed another question: Is drinking coffee, a drug, religious? 

He doesn’t contend drugs are religion, but coffee is historically tied to religion. Hundreds of years ago, Muslim Sufis in Yemen would drink coffee to stay awake all night during ceremonies and to build a connection with God during chants. 

“Today, the ritual of drinking coffee is religious,” Laderman said. “It’s beyond just ‘I need to stay awake.’ That ritual, whether at the coffee house or at home, is essential in many ways from maintaining order and ensuring consistency in our lives.” 

Religion is not just a metaphysical concept, but a terrestrial one that helps ground humans in this world, Laderman said. Coffee helps people stay focused, attentive and get through the world, he said. 

To illustrate coffee’s importance, Laderman looked at Michael Pollan’s forthcoming book, This is Your Mind on Plants. In it, Pollan describes caffeine withdrawal symptoms, ranging from horrendous in the first few days to a feeling of incompleteness in the following weeks. Pollan described having a hard time coming back into consciousness in the mornings and always being “behind the curve” to coffee and tea drinkers. He missed the way coffee ordered his day.

Laderman said we have a faith in doctors and medicine that mainstream pharmaceuticals will help our bodies. 

“How we think about our bodies, our health, disease and illness has been completely reshaped by pharmaceutical companies,” he said. 

Finally, Laderman briefly touched on psychedelics like psilocybin and ecstasy. He said research is unfolding in this “psychedelic renaissance” where people are seeing these as “miracle drugs” that help with depression, post-traumatic stress and other disorders. 

They also help terminally ill patients cope with death anxiety. They produce an experience that leads to ego dissolution and new understandings of humans’ place in the cosmos, making the reality of death less fearful. 

“I’m finding in these treatments in general, but also to death,” he said. “The clarity of connection between the two is right in front of our face.”

An ever-expanding frontier: Margarita Simon Guillory explores digital religions

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MAX ZAMBRANO – STAFF WRITER

Margarita Simon Guillory, associate professor of religion and African American studies at Boston University, delivers her lecture “To Boldly Go: Technological Frontiers and the Changing Landscape of American Religion” Tuesday, July 6, 2021 on the Amphitheater stage. DAVE MUNCH/PHOTO EDITOR

Americans are fascinated by frontier narratives, and the United States has always pursued the newest frontier, whatever that may be, said Margarita Simon Guillory. 

Guillory, associate professor of religion and African American studies at Boston University, sees religion in digital technology as the latest frontier.

Among this new frontier are truly digital religions — where the internet is not simply a place to talk about God, but where the Internet is God. 

At 1 p.m. Tuesday in the Amphitheater, Guillory presented her lecture, “To Boldly Go: Technological Frontiers and the Changing Landscape of American Religion,” the second of three Interfaith Series Lectures on “New Frontiers: Exploring the Future of Religion in America.”

“Frontier” does not have a rigid meaning, Guillory said. Rather, the meaning shifts based on geographical expansion. From the 18th to 19th century, the U.S. expanded from the Allegheny Mountains to the Mississippi River, then from the Missouri River to the Rocky Mountains and finally the Pacific Ocean. Each geographical feature served as a boundary, and beyond it lay the newest frontier, Guillory said.  

After there was no geographical land to continue U.S. expansion, the country needed a new frontier.

“Indeed, science was the new frontier to be explored and conquered,” Guillory said. 

Margarita Simon Guillory, associate professor of religion and African American studies at Boston University, delivers her lecture “To Boldly Go: Technological Frontiers and the Changing Landscape of American Religion” Tuesday, July 6, 2021 on the Amphitheater stage. DAVE MUNCH/PHOTO EDITOR

She referenced two of President John F. Kennedy’s speeches — his Democratic nominee acceptance speech and 1962 “moon shot” speech — in which he acknowledged science and space aviation were new frontiers that should be pioneered by the U.S. 

“Scientists themselves began to employ frontier language, using it as a device to discuss scientific innovations and secure government funding and to garner interest from the American public,” Guillory said.

At a White House ceremony in 2000, President Bill Clinton celebrated the Human Genome Project’s success in creating a map showing 85% of the human genome, Guillory said. He compared this map to one from two centuries prior, one that President Thomas Jefferson applauded, which showed U.S. expansion to the Pacific Ocean. 

Guillory said Clinton called the genome map the “most important, most wondrous map produced by mankind.”

She then explained how this exploration impacted American religious history. 

“At the turn of the 19th century, the backwoods, the very spaces that characterized the western frontier, burst into spiritual flame,” Guillory said. “This fire came in the form of frontier revivalism.”

That flame was kindled in 1801 after 20,000 people attended a revivalist meeting in Cane Ridge, Kentucky, part of the country’s first great religious awakening where people would come from far and wide, on horseback and on foot, from different ethnicities and economic backgrounds, for social and spiritual connection.

“Frontier camp meetings became outlets of spiritual instruction, entertainment, leisure and social interaction,” she said. “Large gatherings like this became the driving force of frontier revivalism. Smaller scale activities were equally vital.”

Margarita Simon Guillory, associate professor of religion and African American studies at Boston University, delivers her lecture “To Boldly Go: Technological Frontiers and the Changing Landscape of American Religion” Tuesday, July 6, 2021 on the Amphitheater stage. DAVE MUNCH/PHOTO EDITOR

One small-scale example Guillory gave was in Chautauqua County, where the pastor John Spencer gave short, practical sermons to people here between 1810 and 1820. She said this, along with other examples throughout the region, inflamed the frontiers of Western New York.

“As the American frontier spread westward, so did flames of revivalism,” Guillory said.  

The Cane Ridge event gave birth to frontier Protestantism, but other diverse religious traditions emerged and spread across the country during this expansion period, Guillory said. She cited the birth of movements like the Shakers, Spiritualists and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

“These examples capture intricate interconnections between western migration and the development of religious traditions considered outside the canon of Protestant revivalism and New England evangelicalism,” she said.

Between 1910 and 1940, over 2 million people of African descent moved from the South to northern cities, which Guillory presented as a 20th century example of religious frontiers and migration. 

She said these migrants saw the North as a promised land. At one point in the southside of Chicago, one could be within a stone’s throw of a synagogue, a St. John’s spiritual church, mosques and several other religious venues, Guillory said. 

Between the end of World War II and the 1980s, Guillory said, changes in social, political and economic fabrics of the nation occurred. There was new technology, changing international relations, demographic shifts in the population, growth in higher education and new policies and administrations. 

“Because religion is a sociocultural institution, and for the most part exposed to large social and cultural environments of this country, it could not help but be impacted by these changes,” she said. “These changes included denominational switching and cross-attendance, denominational schisms, interdenominational cooperation and rising tensions between religious conservatives and religious liberals — which, by the way, mirrors tensions between frontier revivalism and national evangelicalism in the early 1800s.”

Religion became a personal choice for Americans in this period, Guillory said, a trend that continues to this day. 

The General Social Survey began surveying how often American adults would go to religious services, she said. In 1972, the first year of the survey, 41.2% of respondents said they went nearly every week, a number that deflated to 28.5% by 2014, the survey’s most recent results.

“It is clear that the traditional representation of American religiosity is experiencing a decline,” she said. “However, other forms of religion, particularly those characterized under the umbrella of new religious movements, are growing.”

These new religions do not congregate in brick and mortar buildings, she said, but rather online. To Guillory, digital religions are the newest frontier in American religious history.

Not only do these religions exist in the digital world, but they use technological aspects as part of the religion, she said. 

One example Guillory gave was the Church of Google. In this religion, beliefs center around Google being omnipresent, immortal, infinite and omnibenevolent. 

“In other words, Google is God,” Guillory said.

Googlists, as members are called, also discuss existential topics like existence and death, she said. Google, unlike Christianity, Islam or Judaism, for example, is not an imaginative God. 

“It is a scientifically viable entity that answers prayers through searchable questions, and it offers endless opportunities for interactions,” Guillory said. 

Googlists also believe that individuals exist in the afterlife by sharing personal content on the internet, Guillory said. In addition, she said, a quick look at the church’s website for prayers and comments will show that it has helped people grapple with death. They find comfort in believing their presence will continue to exist online. 

Margarita Simon Guillory, associate professor of religion and African American studies at Boston University, delivers her lecture “To Boldly Go: Technological Frontiers and the Changing Landscape of American Religion” Tuesday, July 6, 2021 on the Amphitheater stage. DAVE MUNCH/PHOTO EDITOR

Guillory hopes more research will be done on the Church of Google to answer questions about its authenticity — whether or not it is just a spoof of monotheistic religions, for example. 

Another digital religion Guillory discussed was the Church of Artificial Intelligence. In this religion, people try to understand artificial intelligence as a godhead. Members of this church believe there is a super—intelligent supreme being they will meet after death.

“Faith in this artificial intelligence godhead provides (members) with a degree of certainty against the backdrop of an uncertain future,” Guillory said.

This church, also called Way of the Future, officially closed earlier this year after its founder, Anthony Levandowski, was pardoned by President Donald Trump from an 18-month prison sentence based on a number of legal disputes. The church’s funds were donated to the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund in June 2020, according to a Feb. 18 TechCrunch article

These digital religions are just as valid as the fact of American religion’s definition being based on Protestant roots, Guillory said. 

“From articulating mystical experiences in the world of podcasting, to utilizing mobile phone applications as conjuring tools to access dimensions of sacredness, to employing avatars and multiplayer online role-playing games to reconstruct the souls of loved ones,” Guillory said, “all of these are bold ways in which certain demographics of Americans are expressing their religious and spiritual identities.” 

Digital religions represent the growing frontier, which will only continue to shift and expand as it always has, Guillory said.

“In the words of my mom,” she said, “it just won’t be still.” 

Auburn President Katharine Henderson discusses Christian nationalism, climate change and race with regard to future of religion

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MAX ZAMBRANO – STAFF WRITER

Auburn Seminary President The Rev. Katharine Rhodes Henderson delivers her lecture “Living Between Precarity and the Promise” Monday, July 5, 2021 on the Amphitheater stage. DAVE MUNCH/PHOTO EDITOR

You can’t know what lies beneath something until it is uncovered, the Rev. Katharine Rhodes Henderson explained by describing a home renovation. She didn’t know there was a squirrel living within her walls, but discovered the truth when the wall was knocked down and the squirrel rushed out. 

She used this analogy to demonstrate the uncovering of inequities and challenges in both the United States and world — particularly white Christian nationalism, race and climate change.

At 1 p.m. Monday, July 5 in the Amphitheater, Henderson presented her lecture, “Living Between Precarity and Promise,” part of Week Two’s Interfaith Lecture Series themed “New Frontiers: Exploring the Future of Religion in America.” 

Henderson has been president of Auburn Theological Seminary, a 203-year-old multifaith, multirace leadership development and research institute in New York, for more than a decade. 

She began by looking forward to five years from now, when the U.S. will celebrate its 250th anniversary, and asking what the world should look like then. First, she described issues posed by white Christian nationalism, noting the Jan. 6 insurrection of the U.S. Capitol.

People participating in the insurrection believed they were waging a holy war, using that to justify their actions, Henderson said.

“In the eyes of many, including young people leaving organized religion, there is no distinction between Christianity and nationalism, because of what they see,” she said.

Henderson argued that there is a distinction — Christian nationalism represents more than religion by including assumptions of nativism, white supremacy, patriarchy and heteronormativity. It asks the question of who an American is, a worthy question following the July 4 weekend, she said.

Christian nationalists believe white, native-born Christians are Americans, and exclude racial minorities and other religions, like Islam, she said.

“They are defining who we are as Americans by defining who we are not,” she said.

Henderson said the narrative of Christianity in the U.S. needs to be disrupted because its foundation lies in slavery, and that people justified the practice using Christianity. Wise teachers of different religions who have a shared vision of justice, equity and love and are committed to those who are vulnerable can help change this narrative, she said. 

Auburn Seminary President The Rev. Katharine Rhodes Henderson delivers her lecture “Living Between Precarity and the Promise” Monday, July 5, 2021 on the Amphitheater stage. DAVE MUNCH/PHOTO EDITOR

She also noted the underlying question of what it means to be an American.

“We can’t assume there are shared understandings,” she said.

At a time when Christian nationalism is shaping policies and has increased media attention, she said it is important that answers to that underlying question shape responses and actions, and that we shouldn’t work toward a future constructed by Christian nationalists.

The answer, to Henderson, lies in reclaiming the principle of religious freedom granted in the First Amendment. She said implementation of freedom in the U.S. has been contradictory from its beginning, noting that only white men were allowed to vote. 

“There is a certain irony to it, because the principle has been, and continues to be, abused and misinterpreted from all sides,” she said. 

Henderson has hope. She mentioned a nondiscrimination bill in Mesa, Arizona, aimed at accommodating transgender people in hotels. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, commonly known as the Mormon church, wrote in support of this bill, she said. 

Family is at the center of Mormonism, she said, and as people (particularly young, LGBTQ+) leave due to not feeling represented or accepted, the Mormon church wants to broaden its circle of acceptance.

“I was amazed,” she said. “This defied my presuppositions about Mormonism.”

Henderson then turned to race, saying the U.S. was founded on white supremacy.

“It was and continues to be an organizing principle and part of our DNA,” she said.

Henderson acknowledged economic disparities, heightened by COVID-19, as Jeff Bezos made billions from midnight spending on Amazon.com while others couldn’t eat, lost homes or became sick, she said.

Auburn Seminary President The Rev. Katharine Rhodes Henderson delivers her lecture “Living Between Precarity and the Promise” Monday, July 5, 2021 on the Amphitheater stage. DAVE MUNCH/PHOTO EDITOR

She gave an example of racism in local communities, too. In West Point, Mississippi, two women of color were named valedictorian and salutatorian in the class of 2021. Instead of celebrating, they ended up sharing the titles with white classmates after white parents protested the school, and the principal gave in. 

Across the country, Henderson said 400 bills have been introduced to make voting harder for minorities and consolidate partisan power over an election. She said people only know George Floyd’s name because somebody filmed his death and published it to the internet, while there are too many names to remember of people killed by police. 

Henderson said that Auburn Seminary leaders have spent time looking at the history of their institution. They’ve learned that it was built on stolen land from the Iroquois people, she said. Moreover, a textbook described that place and period in time as a wild and godless region, words she herself used early on in her presidency.

“We need to contemplate acts of repair and redemption,” she said. “Reparations was one of those words you couldn’t even say a couple years ago without invoking defensiveness. But it’s much more common as we move forward.”

Henderson gave a few more examples of reparations by institutions and people.

 She said she was encouraged by the story of Virginia governor Ralph Northam, who was associated with a picture of him in blackface and another person in a Ku Klux Klan costume in his yearbook from Eastern Virginia Medical School.

When that transpired, she thought he should have resigned, she said. But then, Northam began working with Black mayors and leaders across Virginia and changed his administration’s direction. Northam’s administration banned the death penalty, allocated funds to historically Black colleges, implemented police reform measures and removed Confederate monuments.

A cynical perspective would have one assume he did this for political purposes, Henderson said, but she takes him at his word.

“It’s a story laced with all those theological words like redemption and forgiveness, learning and repayment of a debt,” she said.

Good intentions are no longer sufficient, Henderson said, and to grow a circle of belonging, people must have difficult conversations. She advised people to pick one issue that is most heartbreaking to them and learn and engage with it as much as they can.

“Whose voices are you listening to?” she said. “Who is most impacted? Who is missing? What can you learn? What can we learn? Talk to people, have those hard conversations. Bring it to your religious communities. Give money. Vote. Find the partners who are doing the work and go to work there.” 

Henderson then turned to climate change, comparing lessons there to those from the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Auburn Seminary President The Rev. Katharine Rhodes Henderson delivers her lecture “Living Between Precarity and the Promise” Monday, July 5, 2021 on the Amphitheater stage. DAVE MUNCH/PHOTO EDITOR

“It laid us low and humbled us,” she said. “It reminded us we are all intimately connected.”

She said environmental and racial justice are linked in that our relationship with the environment has been tainted by colonization and theological rationalization.

She said humans see themselves as stewards of the environment, which puts people in the place of God.

During Henderson’s home remodel, she found snakeskins in her new pantry. Days later, she found another in the same spot.

Before COVID-19, Henderson said, she would have rushed to pour cement over every hole in the house to prevent the snake from returning. Instead, she admired the snake’s patterns and body memory, always returning to its favorite spot to shed, and was grateful it didn’t reveal itself while she was around. She said she wouldn’t have been able to form this perspective without the pandemic.

With regard to climate change, Henderson said people aren’t persuaded by facts or data, but rather by feeling a sense of belonging and connection. She said having conversations with one another is more persuasive.

One way Henderson feels connected is with her tattoo of a mandala on her forearm, with a circle in which there’s a tree of life, she said. The tattoo has roots in a red thread, which she said symbolizes humans’ lifeblood is connected with nature.

This meaning has changed for her over time. When she went to a memorial for Black people lynched in this country, in Montgomery, Alabama, where she realized her tattoos represented not only her original intent, but also the lynching tree and the blood of ancestors.

She realized her tattoo represents her expanding circle of belonging and connection.

“We carry each other,” she said. “We’re all accountable to one another. We have to hold each other tight.”

As she leaves Auburn Seminary later this year, Henderson said she is looking forward to seeing and working with people marching in streets, online or singing at Chautauqua.

“I look forward to working with you as people of faith and moral courage spread out all over the country to turn precarity into promise and polarization into possibility,” she said.

Philosopher Robin R. Wang teaches fundamentals of Yin Yang and Taoism

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MAX ZAMBRANO – STAFF WRITER

  • Robin R. Wang, author of “Yinyang: The Way of Heaven and Earth in Chinese Thought and Culture” delivers her lecture “The Dao/Tao of Transcending: Yingyang Rhythm, Body Cultivation, and A Case of Religious Practice in China Today” Wednesday, June 30, 2021 on the Amphitheater stage. DAVE MUNCH/PHOTO EDITOR
  • Robin R. Wang, author of “Yinyang: The Way of Heaven and Earth in Chinese Thought and Culture” delivers her lecture “The Dao/Tao of Transcending: Yingyang Rhythm, Body Cultivation, and A Case of Religious Practice in China Today” Wednesday, June 30, 2021 on the Amphitheater stage. DAVE MUNCH/PHOTO EDITOR
  • Robin R. Wang, author of “Yinyang: The Way of Heaven and Earth in Chinese Thought and Culture” delivers her lecture “The Dao/Tao of Transcending: Yingyang Rhythm, Body Cultivation, and A Case of Religious Practice in China Today” Wednesday, June 30, 2021 on the Amphitheater stage. DAVE MUNCH/PHOTO EDITOR
  • Robin R. Wang, author of “Yinyang: The Way of Heaven and Earth in Chinese Thought and Culture” delivers her lecture “The Dao/Tao of Transcending: Yingyang Rhythm, Body Cultivation, and A Case of Religious Practice in China Today” Wednesday, June 30, 2021 on the Amphitheater stage. DAVE MUNCH/PHOTO EDITOR
  • Robin R. Wang, author of “Yinyang: The Way of Heaven and Earth in Chinese Thought and Culture” delivers her lecture “The Dao/Tao of Transcending: Yingyang Rhythm, Body Cultivation, and A Case of Religious Practice in China Today” Wednesday, June 30, 2021 on the Amphitheater stage. DAVE MUNCH/PHOTO EDITOR


Teaching is what philosopher Robin R. Wang does best, and this week she made her first visit to Chautauqua to teach the fundamentals of Taoism, Yin Yang and body cultivation.

“These things are uniquely Chinese,” she said. “These are Chinese seeds growing in Chinese soil.” 

On Wednesday, June 30 in the Amphitheater, Wang presented her lecture on these topics as the third and final Interfaith Lecture for Week One, themed “21st Century Religion in China: Collaboration, Competition, Confrontation?”

Wang teaches philosophy at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, and she is the author of Yinyang: The Way of Heaven and Earth in Early Chinese Thought. 

She began by differentiating Tao from Dao. Both words mean the same thing, Wang said, which is a road, a path or a way, but the translation one uses affects the spelling. Taoism, then, is the religion. 

“It is humans’ place in the cosmos,” Wang said. “Why are we here? Where are we going?”

Wang then mentioned the text Tao Te Ching, or The Book of the Way, originally written in the 4th Century B.C. on bamboo and silk scripts. It acts as the sacred text for Taoism, like the Bible would be to Christianity or the Quran to Islam. 

There are several versions and translations of the book, Wang said, because Chinese is a pictorial language and doesn’t translate directly to a language like English, leaving it open to different translations. Some translations are conceptual and some look more at body cultivation, or strengthening the mind and body, Wang said.

Chapter 42 of the book references Yin and Yang, a concept Wang thinks is not fully understood.

“I walk around Venice Beach, and there are yinyang earrings, surfboards and tattoos,” she said. “Everyone thinks they know about the Yin Yang.”

She said people just think it is a cool symbol with black and white fish chasing each other. This lack of understanding inspired her to write her book on Yin Yang, which she said took her around seven years to finish. 

“Yin Yang is the key,” she said. “Yin Yang helps you unfold Chinese (cultural) DNA.”

The origin of Yin Yang comes from humans’ obsession with the sun, Wang said. When the sun came out of the horizon, if there was a hill, the south would be full of sunshine while the north would be in the shadow. This concept was especially important for farmers planting their crops. 

Another example Wang used was earthquakes. She said if the Yin Yang would get stuck, the earth would shake. Essentially, Yin Yang is a conceptual way of explaining the world, Wang said. 

Yin is more aggressive, or masculine, than Yang, Wang said. She also described Yin as rooster mode and Yang as hen mode.

Yin Yang, therefore, points to relationships and connectivity, Wang said. She then described six different relationships.

First was contradictions, opposites or differences. To start off, she gave an example of a student who might be hesitant about making a decision, instead wanting to take a nap and then decide what they wanted when they woke up, in order to make a good decision, Wang said.

“(Taoism) is humans’ place in the cosmos. Why are we here? Where are we going?”

Robin R. Wang
Author, 
Yinyang: The Way of Heaven and Earth in Early Chinese Thought

“In Yin Yang, it’s not about winners or losers,” she said. “In China, when we have contradictions or differences, we reposition. It’s a Chinese skill.”

Another example Wang gave is children fighting over who can play with a toy. A solution could be to let the child who had it first play first, and then take turns with equal shares of playing time. 

The second relationship is interdependence. 

“One side of the opposition cannot exist without the other,” Wang said. 

She gave a few examples of this relationship, too. One was a door — if it is open, one sees open space, but if it is closed, it looks like a wall. She presented a drawing from 200 A.D. that shows the physical pumping heart and a corresponding spiritual heart. 

“Clearly, you can see the unity of the mind and spirit,” she said. “It’s not a dualistic split. Mind and body always go together.”

Wang also described a female-only Taoist academy — the only one in the world — in Nanyue Mountain, noting Taoism does not put limitations on women’s roles. There, they don’t have washing machines and have their own vegetable garden because all Taoists are vegetarians.

“Human beings are a part of nature, not the center,” Wang said.

Wang also said all Taoists temples are often in the mountains in order to be closer to nature. 

The third relationship Wang described was mutual inclusion. In the Yin Yang symbol, there is a white dot encompassed by the black, and vice versa. She said to think of this like day and night. During the daytime, people confront the brightness, knowing that nighttime and darkness will come again no matter what. If someone prefers one, they have to experience the other anyway. 

She also said it was like a silent transformation, something that goes unnoticed by humans.

“It happens — one day, you look in the mirror and realize you’re old, or that the grandchildren grew,” she said. “Which day did this happen?”

Wang said there are two souls that act as interrelated forces. There is the hun-soul, which goes to the sky toward heaven, and the po-soul which pulls downward to earth. 

“These are underlying currents,” she said. “To understand China, you need to understand underlying currents.”

The fourth relationship, resonance and interaction, is where each element shapes and influences the other. Similar to mutual inclusion, day and night interact where one comes and goes. 

Wang said there is the Tao of Thought and Religion, but they are not separated. Instead, she said they are intertwined and mutually influence one another.

The fifth relationship was complementary and mutual support. 

“You can’t teach somebody to use chopsticks,” Wang said. “There is no right way to use it. If you can pick up rice and put it in your mouth, that’s the right way.”

She said there is table etiquette, of course, and this relationship deals with art and culture. She referenced tai chi and martial arts as a way of teaching movement, too. 

The sixth and final relationship was change and transformation. 

“The body is the vessel of the Tao, and the miniature of nature,” Wang said. “Keeping the body healthy is the first stage of the quest for transformation and immortality. It is the carrier for transcending.”

She based this relationship off the Chart of the Inner Body, found in the White Cloud Daoist Temple in Beijing, which divided the body into three sections.

The Lower Field is below the belly button, where the essence for a woman is blood, and for man is sperm. The main problem that arises in this area is lust, she said.

The Middle Field is the chest, home of emotional entanglement, she said. 

“Your heart gets hurt, and you can’t let it go,” Wang said. “To solve it, you connect with the cosmos, and you can release it.”

The Upper Field pertains to the brain. Here is the fight with stupidity and solving problems, she said. 

Wang then compared life to riding a horse, where one has to consider weather, terrain, the horse’s temperament and how far the horse needs to go. 

Taoism is like in mathematics when one starts broadly, then learns more and more until finally becoming very specific. 

She said Taoism is a great way to think about dealing with China.

“These six relationships let us think about our relationship,” Wang said. “We need communication, and we need to work together and solve these bigger global issues and in our personal life.” 

Fenggang Yang illustrates how in communist China, religions have endured and thrived in Interfaith Lecture

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MAX ZAMBRANO – STAFF WRITER

Fenggang Yang, founding director of the Center on Religion and the Global East at Purdue University, delivers his lecture “The Changing Religious Landscape in Modernizing China” Tuesday, June 29, 2021 on the Amphitheater stage. DAVE MUNCH/PHOTO EDITOR

Fenggang Yang understands that Americans may not realize that millions of Chinese have turned to religion for decades.

It might be hard to believe because of Chinese Communist Party’s suppression of religion, he said, or because Americans usually focus on Chinese economy instead of Chinese faith beliefs. 

Similar to a great religious awakening that occurred in the U.S. in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, where people would gather in camps for revival meetings and swarm churches for salvation and renewal — like with Chautauqua’s founding — China is in its own great awakening.

At 1 p.m. Tuesday in the Amphitheater, Yang presented his lecture, “The Changing Religious Landscape in Modernizing China,” part of the Week One Interfaith Lecture Series, “21st Century Religion in China: Collaboration, Competition, Confrontation?”

Alternatively, Yang said his lecture could be called “The Great Awakening in China.”

Yang is a sociology professor and founding director of the Center on Religion and the Global East at Purdue University. He is also the author of Religion in China: Survival and Revival under Communist Rule and Atlas of Religion in China: Social and Geographical Contexts.

Since President Xi Jinping came to power in 2012, Yang said China has shifted back toward its first 30 years after World War II, when Chairman Mao Zedong was in power and stifled religious freedom.

“It is returning to the old days,” Yang said. “Not the good old days, but the bad old days. I personally experienced these bad old days.”

He said while he was growing up in China during the 1960s and ‘70s, religion was completely banned.

“Religious buildings were shut down,” he said. “Holy scriptures were burned. Sacred statues were smashed. Monks and nuns were forced to return to secular life.”

Communist Albania was the only other country to ban religion, Yang said. 

Fenggang Yang, founding director of the Center on Religion and the Global East at Purdue University, delivers his lecture “The Changing Religious Landscape in Modernizing China” Tuesday, June 29, 2021 on the Amphitheater stage. DAVE MUNCH/PHOTO EDITOR

Yang grew up atheist. In fact, it was taught to students starting in elementary school, he said. People were taught religion was for the weak, he said, and they should find satisfaction in material wealth and cultural richness.

Instead, people were taught to respect Chairman Mao.

“In high school, we had an English class, and the first sentence we were taught to say was, ‘Long live Chairman Mao,’ ” Yang said.

Every aspect of Chinese life centered around Mao. Morning and evening prayers were said in front of a statue or picture of Mao. There were songs and poems dedicated to him, often in the Little Red Book, which was one of the only books people could get in China. Soon after Yang learned the English chant, however, Mao died.

“How magical the English language is,” Yang said. 

Before Mao’s death in 1976, Yang had never heard of universities because they were all closed, like religious venues, he said. Yang went to university in 1978; one year later, religious services were allowed to resume. 

Yang was drawn to philosophy in school, and he realized nearly all philosophers made important references to God. He was originally drawn to logos in Greek philosophy, and then came to learn through Christianity that logos represented God. 

Like his own awakening, Yang said people in the 1980s began to have their awakenings.

Yang described several encounters he had with people who were religious before the Cultural Revolution who then returned to religion. One of those people was his father, who was a lifelong Chinese Communist Party member. It took time, however, for his father to warm up to religion. 

“When I first told him that someday I might become a Christian, he reacted strongly,” Yang said. “He said, ‘If you do that, that would mean betraying me.’ ”

As it turned out, Yang’s father had a near-death experience when he rode his bike over an icy river that cracked open, swallowing him below. Yang said his father remembers being guided by a figure in white garments back toward the surface. It wasn’t until his father began exploring spirituality, after 1984, that he believed it was Jesus who guided him. 

It wasn’t just the older population turning to religion, but young people, too, Yang said. The Tiananmen Square massacre on June 4, 1989, a brutal and deadly end to the Chinese Student Movement, was a major turning point.

“That was a watershed,” Yang said. “It was like a dam broke. The atheist dam broke open. People began to pour into churches and temples.”

He said he heard many stories of book clubs that wanted to read the Bible, but because it was difficult to interpret, they would find a Christian who could help them understand it, essentially turning these into Bible studies.

In summer 2000, Yang interviewed one person who said 100 people would gather at a specific McDonald’s each week to learn a Bible lesson. There would be nine different tables, and each week would be a new lesson led by American Christians. After two or three months, someone could go from not knowing anything about Christianity to becoming an evangelist. 

Fenggang Yang, founding director of the Center on Religion and the Global East at Purdue University, delivers his lecture “The Changing Religious Landscape in Modernizing China” Tuesday, June 29, 2021 on the Amphitheater stage. DAVE MUNCH/PHOTO EDITOR

“It’s very efficient, like the McDonald’s service of fast food,” Yang said.

Eventually, the police raided the McDonald’s, detaining each member of the group (oddly enough, the American leaders didn’t show up that day), Yang said. It was illegal to hold religious gatherings outside of specific government-designated venues. 

The group agreed not to meet at that McDonald’s again, Yang said, which fooled the police because the group would just meet at another McDonald’s or restaurant from that point forward.

Yang met many young people who turned to all different religions, from a philosophy graduate student-turned-Buddhist monk to a descendant of Confucius becoming an imam, or Muslim leader. He knew other young people who turned to Confucianism or Taoism. 

Christianity has been the fastest-growing religion in China, he said. Over the last 21 years, Yang has interviewed hundreds of people — entrepreneurs, academics, young professionals, lawyers, journalists, writers and artists — who are now Christian. 

To explain, he compared religion to an economic market, which needs demand and supply, he said. In China, there are five legal religions: Buddhism, Islam, Taoism, Catholicism and Protestantism (although Catholicism and Protestantism are generally both considered Christian, China lists them as two separate religions). 

“These religions are in what I would call the red market,” Yang said. “They are legally allowed and tolerated, but they are stained red — the Chinese Communist color.”

Churches have increased in number, but they are under some government control, Yang said. To make themselves more visible, churches would construct large, neon crosses, he said. 

This made a communist party boss in Shanghai upset, Yang said, and between 2014 and 2016, more than 1,500 crosses were removed. Church services continued as normal, though.

Yang noted two other religious markets in China: black and gray. The black market consists of about 20 banned religions that still continue sneakily to avoid the watchful eye of the Chinese Communist Party.

The gray market is a middle ground of legal and illegal religious activity. For example, Yang said it is illegal to worship outside of designated venues, but people could regularly get away with worshiping inside of their own homes.

“By 2030, there could be more Christians in China than in the U.S. While it’s under suppression, it could take more than 10 or 20 years, but it’s uncontainable.”

Fenggang Yang, Founding Director, Center on Religion and the Global East

He calls these jiating (family, home or house in Chinese) churches. 

“In the early history of Christianity, many Christians had to meet at people’s private homes,” Yang said. “Jiating churches have become more than that. Some have become large congregations with several hundred or more than a thousand people. Some of those congregations began to form together to create denominations.” 

The main reason people meet in these jiating churches instead of regular churches is to avoid government-designated buildings, which they fear are controlled by the Communist Party, Yang said. 

People would even worship in the streets and public squares, Yang said. Punishments are not severe — often no more than 24 hours in jail, and a couple of weeks at worst, he said. 

“As soon as they were released, they would go back to the streets and squares,” he said. “They are so fired up, it’s uncontainable.”

It’s impossible to know exactly how many people identify with a certain religion in China because every organization comes up with a different number, Yang said. Furthermore, the government usually gives the smallest number possible and mission groups provide the highest number possible. As a sociologist, he said he presents a more conservative estimate.

His numbers show a dramatic increase in Protestantism in China, which began rising even when religion was banned during the Cultural Revolution. Between 1956 and 1982, for example, China went from less than 1 million Protestants to about 3 million, he said. The official government number today is 40 million, which he emphasizes again is certainly an undercount. 

Yang said the higher estimate put the number of Chinese Christians over 100 million. The U.S. population is 331.5 million, according to the 2020 Census. 

Fenggang Yang, founding director of the Center on Religion and the Global East at Purdue University, delivers his lecture “The Changing Religious Landscape in Modernizing China” Tuesday, June 29, 2021 on the Amphitheater stage. DAVE MUNCH/PHOTO EDITOR

“At the same time, in the U.S., we know the proportion of Christians is declining,” Yang said. “By 2030, there could be more Christians in China than in the U.S. While it’s under suppression, it could take more than 10 or 20 years, but it’s uncontainable.”

Sharing maps from his atlas, Yang showed how widespread the five legally allowed religions are in China, with official venues spread across the country, significant for the world’s third-largest country by land area and largest by population. 

One map showed which religion had the most venues for each province. In a high number of provinces, there were more Christian churches than any other religious venue. 

Yang concluded his lecture drawing points from Week One’s theme. He said China is planning on sending out 20,000 missionaries by 2030, but they could use collaboration with experienced American Christian missionaries. 

He acknowledges, however, ideological competition between China and the U.S.; between communism and democracy. The U.S. government will continue to confront China on its human rights violations especially concerning religious freedom, Yang said. 

“We Americans believe that life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are inalienable rights endowed by the creator,” he said. “In this globalization era, if we do not fight for this globally, we may lose them here, as well.”

Kelly James Clark debunks atheist myths about early, contemporary Chinese religion

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MAX ZAMBRANO – STAFF WRITER

Kelly James Clark, author of A Spiritual Geography of Early Chinese Thought, Gods, Ancestors and Afterlife, delivers his lecture of the same name Monday in the Amphitheater as part of the Interfaith Lecture Series. Clark’s was the first Interfaith Lecture delivered in the Amp instead of the Hall of Philosophy.

In his first visit to Chautauqua, Kelly James Clark wanted to get one key point across: Perhaps China isn’t so different from the United States. 

At 1 p.m. June 29 in the Amphitheater, Clark, the former senior research fellow at the Kaufman Interfaith Institute at Grand Valley State University, held Chautauqua’s first in-person installment of the Interfaith Lecture Series since 2019. His lecture title, “A Spiritual Geography of Early Chinese Thought,” is based on the title of his forthcoming book and was part of Week One’s theme, “21st Century Religion in China: Collaboration, Competition, Confrontation?”

Clark began his lecture by reflecting on his first trip to China, in 1999.

“I went there believing the propaganda the Chinese created for their own people during the Cultural Revolution,” he said. The Cultural Revolution was a violent undoing of capitalism by its then-Chairman of the Chinese Communist Party Mao Zedong from 1966 to 1976.

Clark expected to see everyone happy and equal, even having the same clothes and haircuts, based on the propaganda. He was shocked to see that China was actually largely capitalist.

“Beijing, in 1999, was already like New York City on steroids,” he said. 

In addition, Clark expected Chinese people to be non-religious, or atheist, and that they would reject the notion of an afterlife. Clark had previously studied Chinese philosophy, and he said at least 20 other scholars told him China was completely atheist. 

Clark said one sociologist went to the Hall of 500 Gods, a Buddhist temple in China, and was shocked that religions in China believed in not just one god, but sometimes hundreds. 

Clark was equally shocked in his first visit to the country.

Showing a map created by Fenggang Yang, Tuesday’s Interfaith Lecture Series speaker, Clark highlighted the vastness of contemporary China’s religious beliefs.

In the west, particularly in Xinjiang province, is China’s Muslim population, totaling somewhere around 70 million people, Clark said. In the east, where the most populous cities are located, is China’s Christian population, totaling over 100 million people. 

“On any given Sunday, there are more Chinese worshiping in China than in all of Europe combined,” Clark said. 

He noted there are about 10 million fewer Chinese Communist Party members than followers of Christianity, which is the fastest-growing religion in China — a concern for the Party, he said. 

Buddhism came to China from India around 200 A.D. Despite Buddhism originating in India, the largest Buddhist population currently resides in China, Clark said. Furthermore, he said that while Buddhism was originally an atheist religion, Chinese versions can include hundreds of gods. 

Clark warned against generalizing any aspect of China, regardless of whether one was speaking about contemporary or early periods, because the nation has a vast geography and language. Although sometimes called dialects, Clark said China really has more than 100 languages.

“It’s not like the North and the South (in the U.S.),” he said. “In some places, you have to rely on written characters.” 

In early China, there were 10 warring states, Clark said, noting that separate states couldn’t be generalized under one umbrella term like “the Chinese.” 

“We like to say ‘the Chinese’ because we like to put them in a little box, and we like to think they are somehow exotic or somehow different from us,” he said. “But, it’s not true. They are a lot like us.”

Clark said the first text he read that opened his eyes to the importance of religion in China was a poem about King Wen, who may have existed around 1100 B.C. and exemplified wisdom and justice — his name is honorific, as “Wen” means culture.

The poem, which Clark read during the lecture, showed Wen as bringing a god-given culture to the land: traits like justice, harmony and peace. It shows Wen shining in heaven, so whoever wrote the poem must have believed in heaven, Clark said. 

“Turns out there’s hundreds of these texts that unequivocally make reference to God and the afterlife,” he said.

China’s political philosophy for 3,000 years, before communism, was based on the Mandate of Heaven, Clark said. God was said to approve new rulers, but if that ruler succumbed to leading unjustly, then God would search for a new leader and strip the former leader of his mandate. The Western version of this practice, he said, is the divine right to rule. 

King Wen lived 700 years before Confucius, but Confucius’ writings make clear references to God, Clark said. 

Confucius wrote about heaven’s virtue and trust in God when he found himself threatened by another king, Huan Tui. Confucius said he had no reason to fear, essentially saying God was in control so he had no reason to worry, according to Clark. 

“We see an increasing sense of morality and dependence on God with Confucius,” Clark said.

Clark also said Confucius wrote about heaven punishing him if he did wrong, noting that heaven could reward the righteous and punish the wicked.

Confucius also believed in a personal God, although the personal relationship was through deceased ancestors, Clark said. Instead of communicating directly with God, one would speak with spirits of their ancestors, who would relay the message to God. 

“It’s not so dissimilar to God in the West,” Clark said.

Clark then described how archaeologists have dug up thousands of old Chinese tombs, which contain maps drawn for spirits. Some of these maps guide the spirit on how to find flying dragons who will carry them to paradise, or heaven. They also depict strange beings who reside down below in an underworld. 

These tombs would sometimes contain letters written by the living, saying this new spirit was a good person and deserved to go to heaven, Clark said. In addition, he said there might be rooms to host food and persuade spirits to go to heaven, along with rooms to meet other spirits. 

The people who built and maintained these tombs in early China were almost exclusively farmers, like everywhere else in the world, Clark said.

“Life in early China was hard,” he said, describing constant floods decimating crops. 

He said early Chinese hated war and wanted to live in peace, and they wished for a better life for their children. 

“They delighted in a good day of work and a fulsome meal and the love of their family,” he said. 

In early China, people believed in living good lives in order to get to heaven but did not necessarily subscribe to any certain religion, Clark said. 

In contemporary China, there are 90 million communists, but Clark said many of them are members only to get good jobs, such as in universities, so it is out of convenience — not conviction. 

A lesson from cognitive science, Clark said, is that human beings are inclined to believe in an afterlife. He said one researcher expected 0% of Chinese students to believe in an afterlife, and it turned out 60% did.

“The point I want to make about China, the Chinese people, is they want to live in peace and harmony,” Clark said. “They want a better life for their children … They want to share moments and meals and jokes with friends. The Chinese people don’t want war, they want peace. They, the Chinese people, are a lot like us.”

Satpal Singh explores Sikhism creation and how to honor humans’ shared divine light on last Interfaith Friday

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Singh

Satpal Singh gave the last Interfaith Friday lecture of the 2020 season on his perspective of creation and humanity as a Sikh at 2 p.m. EDT Friday, Aug. 28, on the CHQ Assembly Video Platform. Vice President for Religion and Senior Pastor Gene Robinson said that Singh’s words demonstrated a theme in the Interfaith Friday series.

“One of the reasons that I do this Interfaith Friday program is for people to see how much we have in common with one another, although we would use different words and different practices to express our own own spirituality, our beliefs in the divine and so on,” Robinson said. “… In this multitude of religions, we have this one theme that keeps coming through. Despite the fact that we’re each holding a different piece of the divine, … none of us can comprehend all of it. And what you’re saying has really demonstrated that.”

After the lecture on the CHQ Assembly Video Platform, Robinson joined Singh in a subsequent Q-and-A fueled by questions from Robinson and the audience, who could submit questions through the www.chq.questions.org portal and on Twitter with #CHQ2020.

Singh researches neurodegenerative diseases at the State University of New York at Buffalo. Outside of his career, he is the father of Simran Jeet Singh, who has also spoken at Chautauqua on Sikhism, and Satpal himself is a thought leader on Sikhism in interfaith dialogues and on social justice issues. 

According to the Guru Granth Sahib, the central Sikh scripture, there is one universal god who created everything. But this god is formless, without physical traits or a gender. Singh referred to God as “their” to reflect this. While he said a formless god is also difficult to describe, this formlessness is like the concepts of gravity, space and time — though in Sikhism, God also created those, too.

“In a similar way, we can feel love, which is also formless and can permeate our being,” Singh said.

God existed before creation — no land or sky, only darkness.

“Only the divine existed in a profound trance,” Singh said.

Then the divine created the universe.

“From a non-manifest state, the divine became manifest,” Singh said.

Singh sees elements of the Sikh creation story in the Big Bang Theory, the most accepted scientific theory on how the universe began.

“In both cases, starting with nothing, there was a sudden unimaginable force that created an entire known universe,” Singh said.

The divine created it, and also became part of it. Singh said that humans are not only a creation of the divine, but a manifestation, meaning that humans embody the divine itself. The Guru Granth Sahib compares the divine to the ocean, and each human as a wave in the ocean. 

“There is no difference between the water in the ocean and the water in the wave,” Singh said.

In Sikhism, the spiritual pursuit of a life is to realize this and become one with the divine. But this is not on a physical plane. Any physical action, such as going on a pilgrimage, dipping oneself in holy water, fasting, facing in a certain direction, praying in a certain language, eating a certain way, is not related to the spiritual journey — though these actions can help prepare someone for spiritual pursuits on a physical or a societal level.

Since the entire world has been created out of the same divine light,” he said, “how can one person be good and one bad in the name of religion, gender, caste or anything else?”

“Some of these actions may offer us health benefits or other benefits at the level of our physical body or societal principles, but they do not offer us any sort of spiritual advancement,” Singh said. “This may seem odd coming from someone who looks like me. My turban is not a ticket to the realm of the divine. The turban is my identity as a Sikh.”

For Singh, his turban serves as a reminder to himself to maintain Sikh values and ethics, and to make commitments to stand up for equality. Because there is a divine light in every human, Singh said that how a person chooses to follow their spiritual path does not matter.

“If you are a Christian, be a good Christian,” Singh said. “If you are a Jew, be a good Jew. If you are a good Sikh, be a good Sikh.”

He said that recognizing the divine light in every human also means that no person can be greater or lesser than another. He compared it to the idea of water from the same pitcher that fills cups, though the cups all have different colors and shapes.

It’s a matter of practicing complete equality — absolute equality, with everyone sitting together to eat irrespective of religion, caste, gender or social status, or any other divisions among us,” Singh said.

“Since the entire world has been created out of the same divine light,” he said, “how can one person be good and one bad in the name of religion, gender, caste or anything else?”

Thus, the concept of hurting another human who possesses the same divine light becomes illogical. Singh said it was like two brothers with the same mother fighting over whose mother is superior.

“It does not make sense to fight or brutalize others in the name of religion, which we often do,” Singh said.

The concept of this shared divine light, which Singh said was an intrinsic, immeasurable value, is why religious houses of worship, including Sikh gurdwaras, offer free meals to anyone who visits. In Sikhism, this tradition is called langar. With the help of donations and volunteers, the Golden Temple in Amritsar, India, is the largest gurdwara and feeds between 40,000 per day on average and more than 100,000 on holidays. Regular-sized gurdwaras can serve thousands of meals every day. Gurdwaras have offered food during Hurricane Katrina, earthquakes, tsunamis, wildfires, flooding, conflicts in Syria, in refugee camps, and during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It’s a matter of practicing complete equality — absolute equality, with everyone sitting together to eat irrespective of religion, caste, gender or social status, or any other divisions among us,” Singh said.

Singh said that healthcare workers, community organizers and volunteers giving their time and energy to help during the COVID-19 pandemic expressed the greatest form of this spirituality.

“This is the divine connection that we all share with one another and our creator,” Singh said.

Dr. Robert J. Wicks touches on burnout, resiliency and how to kindle self care

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A computer screen separated clinical psychologist Dr. Robert J. Wicks and his audience, but it didn’t phase him. From his Pennsylvania home, he looked at the camera and spoke directly to people experiencing secondary stress and burnout in ministry roles and as physicians, nurses, educators, counselors, psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers and “people like yourselves.”

His second expertise is resiliency psychology and spirituality, “which is designed not simply to help people bounce back from stress, but paradoxically because of it — to become deeper as persons both psychologically and spiritually in ways that would not have been possible had the trauma or stress not occurred in the first place,” Wicks said.

At 2 p.m. EDT Thursday, Aug. 27, Wicks discussed the ways he has guided people as a psychologist and consultant bent toward the spiritual in self-care and resiliency — and how people can put these in practice — in his lecture titled “Night Call: Embracing Compassion and Hope in a Troubled World.”

His lecture marked the end of the 2020 season’s Interfaith Lecture Series, and the Week Nine theme of “The Future We Want, The World We Need.” Wicks is also a recipient of the Holy Cross Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice, the highest honor from the Pope for service to the Catholic Church. In his lecture, Wicks discussed topics from his most recent book Night Call: Embracing Compassion and Hope in a Troubled World. It touches on secondary stress and burnout in roles of both physical and emotional service to others and how a person can deepen their inner life.

He recited a quote from Nobel Peace Prize winner Albert Schweitzer: “I don’t know what your destiny will be, but one thing I know: The only ones among you who will be really happy are those who will have sought and found how to serve.”

But those who serve others also need to take care of themselves in the process.

“Not being aware of the serious stress in our life as we reach out to others — which is a call of every religious faith group — can be quite dangerous,” Wicks said.

Wicks expanded his lecture at Chautauqua to talk about burnout.

“The seeds of compassion and the seeds of burnout are the same seeds,” Wicks said. “Everyone who cares needs to be concerned, not just professional helpers and healers. It’s my belief that for every spiritually committed, compassionate person experiencing significant stress, there’s at least a dozen of us experiencing at least some form of spiritual and psychological burnout.”

Wicks observes guilt when working with nurses and physicians because they can’t save everyone, and in the case of COVID-19, hospitals often don’t have enough equipment to accommodate the high volume of patients. Health care workers also worried about infecting their family.

“Most often, stress is a development rather than a cataclysmic event,” Wicks said. 

After giving a talk in South Africa about his book Perspective, a woman approached him and said she couldn’t keep going as a social worker who specializes in helping women who have been sexually and physically abused. The women, who were often poor single moms, had to take off work to go to court. Then the often-male judge would look at the documents and cancel the court date, and would say to make another appointment. The social worker saw herself as a failure.

But Wicks said that she was there for these women when no one else was.

“Don’t you realize we are not in the success business?” he said to her. “We are in the faith business.”

He said that failure increases with proximity to the problem and possible solutions.

“The more we’re involved, statistically the more we’re going to fail,” Wicks said.

When Wicks worked with surgical residents, he started with telling them that they will end up killing people in their career.

“Maybe not through malpractice, but certainly through mispractice, because it is impossible to be at an A-level 100% of the time,” Wicks said. “But commitment is expected of us.”

Wicks described Rabbi Tarfon as a contemporary of Jesus, and quoted him as  saying: “The day is short, the work is great, the labors are sluggish and the wages aren’t high and the master of the house is insistent. It is not our duty to finish the work, but you are not free to neglect it.”

In terms of addressing wounds with God, Wicks said it was important to attribute them correctly.

“Are these wounds based on reality, or are they based on our lack of faith and our big ego?” Wicks said.

Wicks described how stress can cause a parallel process, where people mimic the patterns of those they guide, minister to or care for. But Wicks cited a spiritual master who once told him to seek to improve his part in a situation, before trying to “carpet the world,” by wearing slippers to cover his feet.

Life is not acute, it’s chronic,” Wicks said. “A lot of people think, ‘Oh, you have a problem, you conquer it and —’ no, no, life is chronic and comes and goes, but suffering need not be the last word.”

Wicks said people should be present with others, the self and something greater than either of those. Helping others can be as simple as comforting them in a time of need.

And be conscious of how people feel when they’re with you. While watching Desmond Tutu walk onstage, Wicks heard a man say, “Desmond Tutu is a holy man.” When his friend asked him why he thought this, the man said, “Because he makes me feel like a holy man.”

Wicks said that gratitude for others and the little things is important, and to connect with a cause greater than oneself.

On self-care, Wicks referred to humorist Irma Bombeck, who once said, “I think any man who watches three football games in a row should be declared legally dead.”

“We just eat, metaphorically, spiritually, whatever comes along — rather than taking out the time,” he said. “ … We have time for what we want.”

Stephen Covey recommends not only to schedule time, but also priorities. Wicks said people need to make time to be present through meditation, alone time, praying and reading scripture.

But when practicing self-reflection and meditation, Wicks said to avoid arrogance and projecting issues onto others, self-condemnation and discouragement — the last of which is “the last castle of the ego, because you want things to change immediately.”

Self-care is not a process that starts and ends. It’s continuous management.

“Life is not acute, it’s chronic,” Wicks said. “A lot of people think, ‘Oh, you have a problem, you conquer it and —’ no, no, life is chronic and comes and goes, but suffering need not be the last word.”

Jeremy Ben-Ami envisions a future with the political will for a two-state solution

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Jeremy Ben-Ami founded J Street in 2008 with the mission to solve the ongoing conflict between Israel and Palestine with a two-state solution. As of 2020, this conflict has lasted almost 100 years.

“For nearly 100 years, every effort to make peace between Israelis and Palestinians and to resolve this conflict has failed,” Ben-Ami said.

Ben-Ami delivered his lecture Israel-Palestine 2020: One State Remains the Problem & Two States the Solution” at 2 p.m. EDT on Wednesday, Aug. 26. It was released a day after the Rev. Mitri Raheb spoke about hope for Palestine’s future. Both lectures were part of Week Nine’s Interfaith Lecture Series theme, “The Future We Want, the World We Need.”

Ben-Ami said that public debate on how to solve the conflict between Israel and Palestine is constant. But in July, The New York Times columnist Peter Beinart stoked the conversation after he announced he stopped believing in a Jewish state or that a two-state solution was possible.

Ben-Ami said he still believes a two-state solution is possible. He believes in Israel as a self-determining solution to a long history of persecution against Jews. Ben-Ami said that a Jewish person is still Jewish without being religious, especially when in Israel. Jewish people are not just united by a religion, but are also a nation of people united by language, culture and heritage — and that aforementioned fraught history.

“Rarely was the story of Jewish life in the lands of others one of integration and success,” Ben-Ami said.

He used his own family as a case study. His distant relative, Isaac Abarbanel, was an adviser to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella in 1492 and told them to stop persecuting fellow Jews through the Spanish Inquisition. But his high status didn’t save him. Abarbanel and his family fled Spain, and he and his descendants would remain stateless for hundreds of years. Eventually, his paternal great-grandparents settled in the first agricultural settlement of Israel. Ben-Ami said they bought land from absentee Ottoman landlords after fleeing persecution from what was then the Soviet Union.

The Holocaust caused the international community to agree with Zionist Jews that Jewish people needed Israel as a homeland. In 1947, the United Nations granted statehood to Israel. It was mandated to exist next to the country of Palestine, whose people had deep historical attachment to the land as the descendants of empires past — Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Persians, Muslims, Mamluks, Seljuks, Crusaders, Ottomans and more.

“So while the historic, religious and cultural connection of the Jewish people to the land of Israel is real, so too are the connections of other people, including many who can trace their family back hundreds of years and more,” Ben-Ami said. “Palestinian nationalism is rooted in such just claims and a national history that itself is soaked in blood and tears. So two peoples, each with just claims and a legacy of suffering, find themselves locked in a conflict that has tortured this holy land for close to a century without resolution.”

Ben-Ami said that out of the nearly 14 million people in Israel and Palestine, which do not have a clear-cut border in between, approximately eight million are Jews, who enjoy a developed country that is a leading economic and military power. Palestinians, treated as second-class citizens, make up the rest of the population. They experience a vastly different reality, which Ben-Ami said must change for Israel to be a legitimate democracy that upholds Jewish values.

“Only if there is a national home for the Palestinian people in the state of their (area) between the rivers and the sea, can Israel be both a safe haven for the Jewish people and live up to the values of freedom, justice and equality on which it was founded,” Ben-Ami said.

But the two-state solution has had an 85-year track record of failure, Ben-Ami said.

To actually get closer to achieving this solution, Ben-Ami said that it will take a different set of political leaders after the current U.S. administration to push this forward, because Israel President Benjamin Netanyahu is attempting to annex the West Bank and U.S. President Donald Trump supports him, while 650,000 Jews have illegally expanded settlements past the 1967 Green Line. According to international laws, legal annexation is meant to be a temporary fix that benefits those who live there rather than the occupiers. But what Ben-Ami calls Israel’s “de facto annexation” of Palestine has continued beyond a temporary fix.

Meanwhile, Ben-Ami said that Palestine currently lacks a strong political leader that can step up and lead it as a state.

“Neither society is primed, nor do they have the leadership needed, to force the necessary tough decisions,” Ben-Ami said.

Walls and barriers around the cities of Palestine built by Israel in attempts to limit Palestinian citizens also need to be dismantled in order to create a clear boundary between the two states. While Ben-Ami said these would be challenging to remove, he noted that “it’s also true that these obstacles have literally been built by people. And there is nothing built by people that can’t be moved or taken down by people when there is the will to do so.”

And the United States eventually needs to demonstrate the cost of occupation to Israel, Ben-Ami said, and reverse prior U.S. administrations’ efforts to erase Palestine by not recognizing it as a state and ignoring atrocities by Israel.

Seeing a two-state solution in the future seems impossible to others who have given up on the solution after all this time. But Ben-Ami said that surprise plot twists in recent history have happened before.

“Who thought while Mandela languished on Robben Island, he would become the country’s president? Who would have thought or foreseen in 1988 the collapse of the Berlin Wall a year later? We have experienced all these outcomes in just the past generation or two. So perhaps all those who are predicting the triumph of doom and gloom and pessimism, when it comes to two states, they’d benefit from a dose of humility grounded in our recent history.”

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