Interfaith Lecture Recaps

‘New York Times’ opinion columnist Douthat describes modern day’s stagnant economy, path away from it



New York Times Columnist Ross Douthat delivers his lecture “Secularism and Stagnation: How Our Economy Became Decadent” Wednesday, Aug. 11, 2021 in the Amphitheater. DAVE MUNCH / PHOTO EDITOR

Going off ideas from the rest of the week, New York Times opinion columnist Ross Douthat began his lecture with the notion we are living in a time comparable to when Chautauqua was founded in the late-19th century. 

“This is an age of unfettered capitalism, a new Gilded Age in which robber barons get rich and build spaceships instead of libraries and summer cottages, inequality runs rampant, political parties are corrupted by money, journalism is corrupted by partisanship and the poor never get their fair share,” he said.

Except Douthat sees a big difference. 

“The Gilded Age was during an era of true dynamism — an era of radically increasing abundance and technological transformation that set the stage for reformers,” he said.

The current era, instead, is defined not by dynamism, but by deceleration and stagnation, Douthat said. 

Douthat explored this idea in his lecture “Secularism and Stagnation: How Our Economy Became Decadent,” the final Week Seven Interfaith Lecture Series themed “Creating an Economy that Works for All” on Aug. 11 in the Amphitheater.

This deceleration began slightly before the moon landing, Douthat said. Since 1492, the global economy doubled in size every century, but it went down to a 2% annual growth by the 1960s, he said. 

“That breakpoint in the ‘60s had immediate economic consequences,” he said.

Douthat listed hourly wages peaking in the United States in the 1970s, household income growth slowing down and three recessions during the Nixon, Carter and Reagan presidencies. 

Lower taxes, deregulation, free trade, increased immigration and anti-inflation policies might be described as neoliberalism, Douthat said, or economic policies under Reagan, Bill Clinton and British Prime Ministers Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair.

The initial response seemed to work, Douthat said, as growth returned to about 4% annually by the late 1990s. Productivity growth, which he said is the best measure of technological change working and impacting the economy, boomed after the internet’s birth. 

Then, the dot-com bubble burst, he said.

“Thereafter, you had a long period carrying on toward the present day of weak recoveries, weak household income growth, declining productivity and far more workforce dropouts than before,” he said.

Deceleration followed by stagnation happened across the developed world, from the United States to Europe to East Asia, Douthat said. Although levels of dynamism vary from country to country, and the United States still has more than other places, it’s not as much as the cliche of American exceptionalism, he said.

During the Carter presidency, which Douthat said was far from an ideal time in America’s economic history, 15% of businesses were founded in the administration’s last year. The rate today is around 8% and is lower still with the COVID-19 pandemic, he said. 

Moreover, the number of startups that failed in the first year increased from 20% to 30% in the last few decades, he said. The percentage of new firms overall is down by one-third, and successful corporations sit on their money or pass it back to shareholders, opting against funding for inventions and innovations.

“This isn’t really an age of robber barons exploiting workers, but building big corporations while they do it,” he said. “It’s an age of vanguard accounts for the upper class and hedge funds for the super-rich recirculating wealth, but not necessarily creating broad prosperity and dynamism.”

Today, Silicon Valley and companies like Amazon, Google and Apple can thrive while pricing out the middle and working class, while big factories in the Rust Belt relied on huge workforces, Douthat said. Big companies hire less than they once did, hindering the American quality of wanderlust, he said.

“There’s this idea that the modern word is full of churn and nobody stays put anymore, but, in fact, Americans move less now,” he said. “They no longer go west or east or north or south in search of opportunities. The rate at which people move between states has fallen since the ‘70s by more than half. Nor do Americans actually change jobs as much as they once did.”

Populist surges, right-wing revolts and left-wing socialist alternatives in America and Europe are political crises connected with the economy, Douthat said. Neoliberalism is commonly blamed as something that was beneficial in the late-20th century but is now harmful, he said.

Free trade hollowed out Western economies, low tax rates enabled the rich to keep more of their gains and antitrust policies became more focused on the benefits of consolidation to consumers, he said. 

With inflation, policies in the 1970s impacted the 2008 financial crisis, Douthat said, because economies didn’t spend enough money to pull themselves out of the recession sooner.

Similarly, a libertarian perspective is that a captured economy, including land use rules, zoning rules, occupational licensing, expanding property protections and corporate subsidies and tax breaks, has created a system that can simultaneously bring out the worst of socialism and capitalism, he said.

“Those stories are depressing, but also kind of encouraging because they imply there are solutions to stagnation,” Douthat said. 

Some of those solutions might include weakening monopolies, taxing the wealthy and cutting welfare and subsidies that flow to big corporations and the rich, he said. Perhaps ironically, both the Trump and Biden administrations have shifted from the economic consensus of the last 30 to 40 years, Douthat said.

“The Biden administration has kept a lot of the Trump administration’s tariffs and protectionist policies,” he said.

Some of the Trump-era policies did help achieve one of the best economies with relation to overall growth and wage growth for the working class in the last 20 years, Douthat said, while noting this was upended by the pandemic. 

Both administrations ran and are running with significantly high deficits, he said — which might be necessary, but is not creating organic innovations or job growth. 

“Certainly there is some kind of limit at some point,” he said. “When we hit that limit, we could go back to a ‘stagflation’ scenario, having made a pilgrimage back to 1975 without finding a way out.”

Douthat argued we are in a time of secular stagnation, with secular meaning a trend that isn’t cyclical. 

“It’s just stagnation that persists no matter what policymakers do over a long period of time,” he said. “There’s a good chance that is the story.”

He suspects the type of growth seen in the late 1800s will not be repeated, because innovations would be defensive against climate change. He described it as a payback for growth during the industrial revolution.

New innovations have been slow because of technological stagnation, too, he said. Although there are obvious marvels such as the iPhone and internet, there’s been less growth in areas like energy, transportation, agriculture and communication. 

“People worried that robots would take all of our jobs,” he said. “Actually, the problem is they aren’t taking our jobs.”

Sometimes it takes a big spark to reignite innovation, he said. Perhaps COVID-19 will be seen as the next great spark considering the rapid medical innovations seen, he said. 

There’s no guarantee that’s the truth, though, and there’s no promise stagnation will end, Douthat said. 

“A stratified economy where people are getting rich but not doing more innovative forms of entrepreneurship is more likely to want to freeze the economic order and resist creative destruction,” he said.

It’s also harder to refit infrastructure in an economy based on deficit spending, which he said is why self-driving cars are hard to invent — it also requires rebuilding an urban ecosystem fit for them.

One trend of the modern developed world that impacts the economy is fewer births, Douthat said. 

In order to replace one generation with another, a country must average 2.1 births per woman. Five years ago, the European Union averaged 1.6 births, Japan averaged 1.4, South Korea averaged 1.2, Singapore averaged 0.82, Canada averaged 1.6, Australia averaged 1.7, and the United States averaged 1.87.

America is most recently at 1.6 births since the pandemic began. 

Some explanations exist, he said, such as a lower infant mortality rate lowering the incentive for having as many children as possible, an information economy making children less valuable as household laborers and more expensive because of the price of education. 

Additionally, birth control has lowered the number of accidental pregnancies, the feminist movement created strong incentives to delay childbirth, more divorces meant fewer people were in relationships to have children and older people had more protection with welfare.

People do want more children, though — Douthat said the desired family size is around 2.5 children. 

“We should care about the fact that the desired family size and actual family size is so far apart because it suggests it isn’t just free people making free choices — but modern society is failing to supply the cultural, economic and religious foundation for people who want kids to do it,” he said.

Lower birth rates also lead to aging societies with fewer workers, slow GDP growth and leaves less room for dynamism, he said.

Regarding climate change, less dynamism and an older society means new innovations may only delay its worst effects, while a younger society could eliminate fossil fuels faster, Douthat said.

In the 2013 book Capital in the Twenty-First Century, author Thomas Piketty argued capitalism was leading to the success of the 1%, Douthat noted. Low population growth, Piketty argued, aids in their success because fewer children means fewer heirs to divide the wealth.

Lower birth rates and smaller families means people are spending more time alone, which may feel freeing between ages 18 to 35, but then people risk isolation into middle age and elderly years, Douthat said. 

“The advantage of living solo and the promise of independence becomes a curse,” he said.

The absence or delay of children leads to another absence or delay of grandchildren, removing purpose and optimism from people’s lives, he said.

When all of this began in the 1960s, so too began the modern wave of secularization, Douthat said, with increasingly weakened or nonexistent ties to religion being a part of society. There was also the idea that religion and science could go together, such as the case of Chautauqua’s founding. Religious ideas and moral values were separate from growth and innovation, he said, instead being a way to gentle capitalism.

That could still be true, he said, but perhaps religion can also be a source of creativity and dynamism. 

“Religious revival, in this sense, wouldn’t just be a way to tame inequalities associated with growth — it would be a way to generate more of that growth in the first place and tame inequalities that are more associated with stagnation,” he said. 

Douthat’s conservative friends focus on an unrealistic notion of everyone turning to traditionalist values, which creates a vision of those traditionalist people being converted for the purpose of secular producers and consumers, he said. 

Instead, Douthat wants to imagine a world where broad religious ideas — like God creating the universe and humans participating in God’s divine plan, to specific ideas of babies being good — can create a society of moral institutions that are concerned with social justice more than acquisition. 

“At a fundamental level as far apart as science and religion can go, both scientific and religious experiments proceed from a similar desire of knowing,” he said, adding they both seek to understand the universe’s secrets. 

He said this relationship between religion and science, between modern dynamism and ancient faith, can steer society away from stagnation.

“There can be a mysterious alchemy between different forms of human exploration,” he said. “I think nothing will be a surer sign that our age of stagnation is really ending than that kind of alchemy suddenly returning.”

Harvard’s Friedman traces history of modern economics, role religion plays



Benjamin M. Friedman, William Joseph Maier Professor of Political Economy at Harvard and author of Religion and the Rise of Capitalism, speaks Tuesday in the Amphitheater. DAVE MUNCH / PHOTO EDITOR

As it turns out, Chautauqua has a connection to an important part of economic history. The textbook Outlines of Economics, the bestselling economics textbook in the early 20th century, was originally published in 1889 as part of the Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle. 

Benjamin M. Friedman wanted people to realize this connection to set the basis of looking back in time. In his Interfaith Lecture on Aug. 10 in the Amphitheater, Friedman explored a couple questions: Where did modern Western economics come from, and why did it emerge when, and where, it did? 

His lecture, “Religion and the Rise of Capitalism,” was the second of three Week Seven lectures themed “Creating an Economy that Works for All.”

Friedman knows a thing or two about the economy. He’s spent his entire career at Harvard University, entering his 50th year as a professor there this fall as the William Joseph Maier Professor of Political Economy. He also earned his bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees at Harvard. 

For Tuesday’s lecture, he drew from ideas in his latest book, also named Religion and the Rise of Capitalism

To begin to answer his questions, Friedman looked at the first fundamental welfare theorem, which is the idea that individuals acting in their own self-interest in a competitive market will better the lives of both themselves and others. 

“If you pause to think about it, this is a very fundamental and important insight into not just human behavior, but consequences of human behavior as organized by society,” Friedman said.

There are two presumptions about this theorem’s origin, he said, first pointing to Adam Smith’s 1776 book The Wealth of Nations. The second presumption is that Smith, David Hume and other figures of that era in economics, who essentially founded modern economics, were products of the Enlightenment. 

Friedman said the Enlightenment is often viewed as a movement away from a God-centered universe to secular humanism, and that none of this economic thinking had anything to do with religion. 

He does accept the first presumption, but rejects the second. 

“The entire path of modern economics, ever since Smith, has been powerfully influenced by trends of modern religious thinking,” Friedman said. “The originating impulse was a movement away from predestination Calvinism, which I will argue opened up the way for benign and optimistic views of human character and, importantly, a more expansive view of the possibilities of human agency.”

He noted, however, that Smith and Hume were not religious figures, or even proponents for religion. Friedman suspects, as it’s not confirmed, that Hume was an atheist, and there is no evidence that Smith was a religious believer but perhaps more aligned with 18th century Deism, like Founding Fathers Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson.

Instead, Friedman subscribes to Albert Einstein’s concept of a worldview, or that people’s time and place influences the way they think, he said. This concept simplifies the task of analyzing the world, he said. Einstein developed this concept with regard not just to physicists, but painters, poets and philosophers, for example.

Friedman highlighted philosophers because that is how Smith viewed himself — the word “economist” wasn’t yet created.

He also noted economist Joseph Schumpeter’s term “pre-analytic Vision.” 

The movement away from predestination Calvinism largely defined the time and place of Smith and Hume, Friedman said. 

This transition was stark. At the beginning of the 1700s, individuals were not trusted to correctly perceive their economic self-interest. If they did correctly perceive it, there was no option for acting on it and benefiting others, Friedman said. Therefore, acting in self-interest was seen as vicious, he said. 

By 1790, the year Smith died, it was assumed that individuals could correctly perceive self-interest when they were producers of goods or services, Friedman said. The same wasn’t quite true for consumers. Instead, Smith described their actions as “frivolous” and “stupid.”

When people did correctly perceive their self-interest in the economic sphere, under the right conditions like a competitive market, they would make decisions that benefited others. As a result, it was no longer seen as vicious to act on one’s own self-interest. 

Smith’s perspective was based on several predecessors, but Friedman argued Smith should still be the one getting the most credit because others had no awareness of the role of markets or competitive mechanism. 

The desire to improve oneself is inborn, Friedman said about Smith’s thought. Smith also wrote about the system of competitive markets generating prices and wages, and these set wages and prices are the product of bargaining so both the buyer and seller can achieve the best price.

“Our actions make others better off even though we don’t intend it,” Friedman said.

This notion is behind the phrase the “invisible hand,” he said. 

Benjamin M. Friedman, William Joseph Maier Professor of Political Economy at Harvard and author of Religion and the Rise of Capitalism, speaks Tuesday in the Amphitheater. DAVE MUNCH / PHOTO EDITOR

Smith has received tough treatment from economic conservatives since 1776, Friedman said. 

“Smith did not think of the competitive market mechanism as some kind of fragile hothouse flower that needed to be protected and defended from any threat whatsoever,” he said. “Instead, what impressed him was the incredible robustness and power of implication and of the combination of human drive and the way society is organized.”

For example, Smith was in favor of progressive income taxes and luxury taxes, Friedman said. 

“He wrote that people who rode around in luxury carriages ought to pay a special tax on them,” he said.

He thought the revenue should help the poor, and was also in favor of taxes on whiskey, distilleries and tighter regulations on banks and banking, Friedman said. 

Smith was enabled to come to these conclusions for several reasons. First, he was trained in an era of Newtonian ideas of systems and mechanism, Friedman said. Second, he was educated in stoic philosophy, or the natural harmony of the universe. Third, he lived in an increasingly commercialized society, and fourth, he was observant. 

But a key factor, Friedman said, was that Smith lived at the height of this transition away from predestination-oriented Calvinism.

There were many elements in this transition, he said, but focused on three for the purpose of economics. 

One was human nature, he said. John Calvin wrote that humans are unable to tell between good and evil, while post-Calvinists believe everyone is born with some inherent goodness, Friedman said.

Another was human destiny. Calvin believed humans had no ability to save themselves because their life and afterlife was determined before the world was created. During and after this transition, people began to believe humans’ choices and actions could save them.

Third was human purpose, which Calvin believed was in the glory of God. Later, people instead put more emphasis on human happiness.

“If it was not only possible that we could tell good from wrong and we could take actions that would matter in the spiritual realm, why couldn’t we take actions that make people better off in the earthly realm, as well?” Friedman said. “If the divine purpose for our being here is to make us happy, then why wouldn’t human institutions like markets and commerce be designed for that end?”

Religion played a much more important and central role in society in the days of Smith than now, Friedman said, such as all education institutions being tied to religious foundations. 

In addition, intellectual life was more integrated then versus now, he said. At Harvard and Yale, for instance, theologians and church historians are segregated from the main campus, he said. When Smith was professor at the University of Glasgow, everything was together. 

Also, religious debate was deadly during Smith’s lifetime. Several wars and conflicts, like the Thirty Years’ War, English Civil War and Highland Rebellion were extremely bloody, Friedman said.

“For all of these reasons, you could not help but pay attention to religious debate if you were living then,” he said. 

Religiously motivated economic thinking is still a part of the economy, he said. 

“Today, economics is still about human choices and their possibilities,” he said. “The first fundamental welfare theorem is still at the heart of our analytical apparatus. Smith’s and Hume’s more expansive and optimistic view of human agency remains ours, as well.”

This remains true despite less debate between people about the merits of predestination or non-predestination thinking, he said. He looked at this through a political lens.

“In states like Kentucky or Mississippi, the fraction of the population that relies on programs like food stamps, subsidized housing and supplemental income is much, much higher than other parts of the country,” he said. “Yet, these states also have populations that systematically vote for candidates that want to shrink or dismantle these programs.”

Political scientists solve this puzzle with two factors of democracy. One, the United States has an indirect representative democracy where people vote for candidates, not policies. Two, there are not enough political parties to give people choices from all the relevant policy combinations, Friedman said.

Friedman decided to look at how people align politically. If an individual favors economic policies that favor high-income people and support socially conservative policies, they would fit into the Republican Party, he said.

Benjamin M. Friedman, William Joseph Maier Professor of Political Economy at Harvard and author of Religion and the Rise of Capitalism, speaks Tuesday in the Amphitheater. DAVE MUNCH / PHOTO EDITOR

Conversely, those who favored policies that benefit low-income citizens and are in favor of socially liberal policies will fit in with the Democratic Party, he said. 

“What about people who would benefit from policies like food stamps, supplemental income and subsidized housing, but nonetheless don’t like abortion or same-sex marriage?” he said. 

Political scientists would answer that they care more about socially conservative policies, therefore falling in the Republican Party, he said. Friedman found in the 2016 election about one-third of the electorate was in this category. 

He decided to look at opinion surveys to see religion’s role.

In a poll that determined the share of the population preferring a smaller government providing fewer services, 51% of all Americans were in favor. Fifty-nine percent of mainline Protestants were in support, 64% of evangelical Protestants, too, as were 69% of traditionalist evangelicals.

Friedman said political scientists had no answer to that, but he thinks understanding the role of economics and religious thinking helps understand these origins. 

In another poll stating, “Government aid to the poor does more good than harm because people can’t get out of poverty until their basic needs are met,” 50% of Americans agreed. Of mainline Protestants, 46%; evangelical Protestants, 38%; and traditionalist evangelicals, 33%.

In one more, he looked at support for estate taxes. Forty-four percent of Americans would prefer to abolish it, he said. This time, he compared the average income for various groups of Americans to their view on the estate tax. 

Republicans have higher incomes, on average, and are more likely to oppose an estate tax. Democrats have slightly lower incomes, on average, and are less likely to be opposed to an estate tax. Mainline Protestants have slightly higher-than-average incomes and are more opposed to an estate tax.

Evangelicals, however, have slightly lower average incomes but are more likely to oppose an estate tax. 

“My view is we simply cannot understand the current level of political impasse in the United States by ignoring the role of religious thinking,” he said.

Economics was a product of the Enlightenment, he said, but religious thinking is still central to its story.

“The role of religious thinking continues to be at work today, especially in America in our ongoing debate over economic policy,” he said. 

Benedictine Sister Chittister explains spirituality of work to open series on creating an economy that works for all



Sr. Joan Chittister opens up the week of Interfaith Lectures with a talk on the spiritualities of work, money and philanthropy Monday in the Amphitheater. KRISTEN TRIPLETT / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

Before diving into her lecture Monday, Aug. 9 in the Amphitheater, Sr. Joan Chittister told a Hindu story of a holy one who sent disciples to a tailor to have a new shirt made for him. 

It would need to be ready in three weeks, and the disciples relayed that to the tailor, who said if God blessed them, then it would be ready that same week.

It wasn’t, but he said the same thing about it being ready next week, only to not have it done again. With only one week to spare, the disciples told their teacher, who told them, “Ask how long it will take to finish the shirt if he keeps God out of it?”

The tailor wanted God to do something about the shirt, Chittister said, but it’s the tailor who needed to do something. 

She also cited an old proverb: “Nothing we do changes the past, but everything we do changes the future.”

Chittister then opened the first of three Interfaith Lectures for Week Seven, themed “Creating an Economy that Works for All.” Her lecture, titled “To Exist: A Society Based on Money Needs a Population Based on Heart,” focused on the relationship between what she called spiritualities of work, money and philanthropy. 

These should be focused on before discussing profit, growth, development and security, she said. 

Chittister is an international lecturer, award-winning author and a Benedictine Sister of Erie, Pennsylvania. She’s been returning to Chautauqua for 35 years. 

She wanted to explore two questions: What is the Abrahamic theology of work on the soul, and does a spirituality of work, money or philanthropy exist — if so, does it even matter?

In one story, a rabbi explained to disciples that their ancestors created new ways of serving according to their character, and that each of us should devise a new service for others. 

“We are not being asked here to do more than we can,” Chittister said. “We are simply being asked to do something in our own time that has value. We are being asked to profit the world by our existence. We’re allowed to be unique, yes, but we are not permitted to be useless.”

The story of co-creation, she said, is the unwritten autobiography of every human, and it is the story of making the world a better place. 

“Life, you see, is not about traveling through,” she said. “Life is about doing something that lasts beyond us, something that will, eventually, at least, bring the world one step closer to the completion of God’s will for it.”

Work is essential to reaching this objective, she said. 

“God made the world, yes, but God did not complete it,” she said. “God left that to you and me.”

The Book of Ecclesiastes, she said, makes it clear there is a time for money, profit and development. In today’s culture, however, people work for money and not for a greater good. 

“Now, we teach our children to get high-paying jobs, not jobs that soothe or heal a wounded world,” she said. “People work in our world so that they can do something other than work, and as soon as possible. People work at segmented tasks now in an assembly-line world. These segments, however, have no meaning to them.”

In the United States, people do work long hours — more than in other countries — but people are not living until they stop working, Chittister said. 

“So, as a society, we work primarily for the economy, not for human expression,” she said. “And, we certainly do not work to put our own mark on the world out of a sense of global responsibility.”

Society, she said, is run by people who can ignore social injustice and destroy the climate without any concern.

“Corporations we work for dump chemicals into streams, rivers, lakes and seas that are turning our water into poison, and they can do it without a quiver of sadness, let alone of conscience, but they’ll make great profits,” she said, adding it is at the cost of a future that they may kill.

Chittister highlighted a 1972 MIT study that predicted the beginning of society’s collapse by 2040 if carbon emissions were not immediately reduced by a significant margin. Big oil and gas companies spent millions of dollars to suppress and deny those findings, Chittister said.

It worked, she said, because the study was largely forgotten — few knew it in the Amp when she asked for a show of hands of those who knew.

The study’s researcher, Gaya Herrington, spent time last year going back to her 1972 study and comparing it to 2020 numbers. 

“Were they accurate? No,” Chittister said. “2020 is now the date of the beginning of the collapse of the entire climate and the standards of living of our society.”

Chittister called the narrative of big companies a lie and an attack on every generation, and she said she feared no remaining honest leadership. 

People might ask what their purpose in life is, then, and what are the profits of doing anything, she said. 

The world now needs a sense of economic conscience, she said, referring to the spiritualities of work, money and philanthropies. 

“Good work is really what connects us to the rest of the world,” she said.

But, the notion of individuals having whatever they can get turns greed into virtue, she said. People resent subsidized housing for people kicked out of the profit system, but don’t say much about tax exemptions for corporations.

“We forget that the God who will judge the poor on honesty will judge us on generosity,” she said. “Indeed, we export our jobs, but not our pension plans or our fair labor practices or our wage scales. In fact, we use the poor of other countries to provide labor at slave wages.”

One example she gave was Indian children working 70-hour weeks at 35 cents an hour to make toys played with by children in other countries.

“We say we’d like a better world, but we ourselves go on sustaining this one by our silence,” she said.

Previous generations worked for the good of the future, she said, while this one is leaving behind garbage in space, waterways and the halls of housing projects; feeding the rats, but not children. 

Industrialization set this into motion, but computerization hastened it, she said. 

“It’s robbed of us of a view of what we’re really doing in life and want to do in life,” she said. “Earlier ages never had it so bad. They at least could see their crops through from beginning to end. They lived off their own crops themselves. … They knew the effect of what they did or didn’t do.”

She then described four characteristics of a spirituality of work. First, it is creating a personal worldview. 

“When we sweep the street in front of the houses in the dirtiest city in the country, we’re bringing new order to the universe,” she said.

Second, this spirituality of work puts people in touch with their creativity, to a point where making a salad for dinner becomes a work of art, she said, or planting another evergreen tree becomes a contribution to the world’s health.

Third, it allows people to put their own stamp of approval on any development. 

Fourth, work touches everything around it, meaning everything one does impacts the world around them. 

“A spirituality of work immerses me in the development of the human community,” she said.

Work is a lifelong process of personal sanctification that saves the world for the benefit of other people, she said. 

A spirituality of work, she said, means there must be a spirituality of money. 

She told the story of a man who heard tiptoes behind him, realizing he was being stalked in his home. He confronted the robber and gave him a pure gold bowl, so that way he wouldn’t be woken in the middle of the night.

The robber was back the next day, and he was told there was nothing left to receive. The robber wanted to know, though, how one could give away the gold bowl at all. 

“That’s the kind of giving that explains the difference between charity and philanthropy,” Chittister said.

Philanthropy is one’s personal ability to create something for a better tomorrow, even if that person is not around to see it, she said. 

“The philanthropist is the giver, at any and every economic level, that sees what others do not see and believes in it enough to take a chance on it for all our sakes,” she said. 

It is built on four characteristics, she said. One includes the vision for success without the promise of personal profit. Another, she noted, is that philanthropy requires solutions that have never been considered to certain problems.

The vision of philanthropy demands an awareness of what needs to be done, too, she said, highlighting free arts programs for children put in one of the most drug-ridden, harsh areas of Erie. 

Philanthropy can even be reckless, she said. 

“We hear it at every cocktail party,” she said. “ ‘Who would put money into that program?’ ”

Philanthropists aren’t the people who question such programs, but push for them, she said. 

“Giving before other people even realize that there is something worth doing out there that is not being done is what distinguishes philanthropic vision from donations,” she said. 

Scripture claims without vision, people die, Chittister said. Life is about the theology of co-creation and finishing what God began. 

“You are the visionaries,” she said to the audience. “You are the only givers that we have to come to. You are the co-creators of a world badly in need of a new co-creation.” 

Without giving and growing, there won’t be room for churches, schools or neighborhoods to grow, she said. 

Righteous giving can be divided into four levels, as it was by the medieval Jewish philosopher Moses Maimonides. Level one is realizing that giving is essential to keep ourselves out of selfishness, Chittister said.

Level two is giving indirectly, such as community collections. Level three is giving in a way so the recipient does not know the donor. Level four is giving enough to sustain others so that they can move away from their dependence on charity. 

“Charity only concentrates on meeting the needs of the day,” Chittister said. “Philanthropy provides a vision for tomorrow.”

The message of the week, Chittister said, is to never underestimate the power of the spirituality of work, money or philanthropy. Even if one is not religious, committing to good work is a deep connection to God, she said. 

Again addressing the audience, Chittister noted most attendees were older in age, but their work wasn’t done.

“You have a lot more to do,” she said. “And you get up and do it.”

She hopes that once there is a great shift toward philanthropy and meaningful work, people won’t have to sleep on the streets in the world’s richest country, and young people won’t have to go into massive debt just to get an education. 

“Everything we do changes the future,” she said.

Jose Arellano, Steve Avalos detail life in gangs, prison, finding purpose through Homeboy



Fr. Greg Boyle was in Bolivia when he had an experience, one that prompted him to ask his church to place him in the poorest parish in Los Angeles. There, six gangs were at war with each other. 

He wanted to flip these people’s lives around. So he founded Homeboy Industries, an organization that 30 years later is now the largest gang rehabilitation and reentry program in the world, according to its website

At 1 p.m. Thursday, Jose Arellano and Steve Avalos, co-directors of case management and navigation at Homeboy Industries, shared their stories of life in prison and gangs, to their turnaround through Homeboy. Their lecture, “The Power of Empathy: Live It to Create it,” was the final installment of the Week Six Interfaith Lecture Series themed “Building a Culture of Empathy.”


Jose Arellano

As a kid, Arellano loved going to school. He did really well, too, and was placed in the Gifted and Talented Education Program. 

His home life was the polar opposite. 

Most of his family were involved in gangs all his life, including his mother and uncles, he said. When they partied all night and slept the next day, it was Arellano getting himself and his four younger siblings ready for school.

“That was my life experience growing up,” he said.

He had one older cousin who looked out for him, he said. When they were 11, they made a pact in his grandmother’s backyard.

“ ‘No matter what happens, you and me will never get jumped into the hood,’ ” he said. “He reached out his hand, and I shook his hand. I made that promise.”

The summer before junior high school, when Arellano was 12, his mom got addicted to methamphetamines. 

“We became more and more poor,” he said. “Lights were getting turned off; even the water got turned off.”

Arellano and his cousin would stay out until 1, 2 a.m., maybe later — nobody checked. That summer, though, his cousin broke their pact and joined a gang. 

“He didn’t consult me, he didn’t tell me he was considering it,” Arellano said. “From one moment to the next, he was a gang member. We never talked about it.”

So Arellano sought refuge at a nearby friend’s house, which was much more stable. He would stay so late, in a home with a mother, father and food, the mother would have to make him leave late at night.

One night, Arellano went and knocked on the door because he couldn’t stand being home. Someone came to the peephole, but didn’t open the door. He tried knocking on the window, and he was greeted by a living room light and TV, both switched off. Nobody who would let him in.

“I remember just feeling so broken and hopeless — and above everything, I felt hurt,” he said.

Back at home, a hub for gang members, he said a couple of them asked if he wanted to join. Before that night, he always had an excuse to refuse — school being one, playing the trumpet another. 

“I remember feeling so hurt — my mother is in the streets on meth, my cousin who protected me and is like a brother to me is now gangbanging, and this house that I frequent, they don’t want me there anymore,” he said. 

Arellano was out of excuses. He responded instantly.

“Yeah, I’ll get in tonight,” he told them.

They took him across the street, and they beat him. 

“They punched me, and when I fell they kicked me and they continuously beat on me,” he said. “After they beat on me, they embraced me and they hugged me and they told me things like, ‘I love you, I got you.’ ”

One of them went to get him some pants. They were three sizes too big for Arellano, but he wore them for a month straight, he said. He felt like someone was looking out for him.

Eight months later, the reality of gang life hit home. Arellano’s cousin, who made a pact they would never get involved with gangs at 11, was dead at 14, murdered with a 12-gauge shotgun.

“Life, for me, became real at that time,” Arellano said. “I felt like death was around every corner.”

He couldn’t talk about his devastation, though. He couldn’t talk about how he missed playing with toys with his cousin when they were hiding in their rooms from the gang, hiding that they weren’t yet grown. 

Arellano grew accustomed to it. He said he embraced the pattern of surviving day-to-day.

When he turned 15, Arellano went to juvenile hall for the first time for selling drugs. When he was 16, he went back, this time for two years. He saw how other moms would come and visit their children, and he began to resent his own mother.

“I just felt, ‘Damn, my mom doesn’t care about me,’ ” he said. “ ‘She doesn’t come to visit me.’ ”

He said staff during those years would come to his cell, take his underwear and throw it so he’d have to walk in front of everyone to get it. His early embarrassment turned into embracing the experience, one of many that he said shaped his self-perception during that period.

He got out, and went back in, at 18, staying until he was 22. He didn’t hit 23 before he was back again.

“I felt I had no reason to change, and I wasn’t going to change,” he said. “I accepted my fate. I was going to die like this.”

Arellano’s relationship with his mother became completely nonexistent, he said. He told people he didn’t even have a mom.

During Arellano’s last term in prison, his mom died as a result of her drug addiction. 

Locked in solitary confinement, Arellano looked at his small, square mirror. 

“I asked myself, ‘Who the hell are you, and how did you get here?’ ” he said to his fully-tattooed reflection. 

Arellano first heard of Boyle and his efforts while in prison, but he said it was hard to believe any stories told in the prison yard. Eventually, though, he got out, and stayed out. 

He was working odd jobs, driving across town to work four-hour shifts at various places while on high-control parole. His father-in-law told him about Homeboy Industries, so Arellano called and got an interview immediately.

It was four quick questions. First, the interviewer asked if Arellano had ever been locked up, then asked if he was even involved in a gang. Then he asked if he was on probation or parole.

“I’m like, ‘What kind of questions are these?’ ” he said, drawing a laugh from the audience. 

Finally, he asked if he had any tattoos. Something in Arellano told him to be honest the entire time.

“He said, ‘Alright we’ll give you a job,’ ” Arellano said, hands in the air met with a now echoing laugh across the Amp.

When he arrived and filled out paperwork, Arellano was incredibly off-put by all of the gang members he saw. He wanted no part of them.

One, who had the most tattoos Arellano had ever seen covering his head, arms and eyelids, approached him. Arellano’s heart was racing.

The man simply stuck out his hand, introduced himself, and asked Arellano if he wanted any water. 

“I remember thinking, ‘What is this place? Gang members offering you water?’ ” he said. 

These experiences continued. Arellano found a welcoming home.

He ended up finding his little brother, who was then 14, and took him in. He was extremely quiet, Arellano said, only really expressing himself physically and violently. With permission from Boyle, Arellano got his brother a part-time job and enrolled him in high school.

The two shared clothes, transferring attire each day. People noticed, and one day Boyle called them into his office. He handed them two Sears cards, and told them to go buy some new clothes.

Arellano was always taught, and thus taught his brother, to never accept anything from anyone because they would expect something in return. Similarly, the two were taught never to cry because it showed weakness, something that someone could use against them.

When they got to the car, Arellano turned to his brother, who was sobbing uncontrollably, he said.

“Why the eff do they care about us?” Arellano said about his brother’s response. 

He didn’t have the words then to tell him why, although he knew it was because he was deserving and because he mattered, Arellano said. This was when he knew he wanted to stay involved in Homeboy Industries — to give these experiences to others like him.

“It’s my honor to be able to continue to be there now in a leadership position, to help create experiences that help people see the truth about their lives,” he said. “That they’re exactly what God had in mind when God created them. That they’re worthy no matter what they’ve done or what they’ve been through.”


Steve Avalos

Homeboy Industries was pitching itself in a contest where the winners would receive $1 million. 

Avalos was there, along with others from Homeboy and the community. While talking to another man, Avalos felt something was familiar. 

He asked if he was a judge, and the man said yes. He asked for his name, and it was confirmed.

“My heart dropped,” Avalos said. “I said, ‘I think you let out my father.’ ”

It was true. That same judge let Avalos’ father out of prison on compassionate release. After 34 years in prison, serving a life sentence, Avalos’ father was dying. The judge allowed him to go home.

His father was released one morning at 10 a.m. Twelve hours later, sitting on the couch with his wife, Avalos’ mother, he died.

Avalos thanked the judge for making the controversial decision. The judge asked how his brother was doing, and Avalos said great, he had just graduated from Yale University.

“He said, ‘No, the one with life in prison,’ ” Avalos said. 

He was asking about Avalos, not knowing he was speaking directly to him. Upon realization, the two hugged.

“The power of empathy is beyond what we can ever imagine,” Avalos said. 

Like Arellano, Avalos never saw himself joining a gang, despite his entire family being involved. 

“It’s a lot of pain, a lot of hurt, a lot of betrayal, a lot of violence,” Avalos said. “I didn’t want nothing to do with that.”

Before he was born, Avalos’ biological father was murdered. Soon after, so was his mom’s sister. At a barbeque one day, his uncle was shot eight times. He still doesn’t like parties.

Avalos would go to the baseball field so he could escape. 

“If I stayed on the baseball field, I didn’t have to be at the house,” he said. 

At home, Avalos’ family slept on the floor in case of drive-by shootings. The outside lights stayed on to see who was coming, and the inside lights stayed off so nobody could see inside, he said.

The summer Avalos was 11 years old, his older brother, who had joined a gang a couple years prior, was murdered at 15. 

“I remember thinking to myself, ‘Maybe that’s just life,’ ” he said. “Maybe that’s just the way life is for some of us. I remember shaving my head and saying, ‘OK,’ and giving up and becoming a follower.”

Prison was normal for Avalos, because visitation was allowed five days a week. The only way he avoided visiting his stepfather was if he was playing baseball, he said. 

When he was 14, his mother gave him an ultimatum. He could leave the gang, or leave home. She couldn’t see it through any longer, he said.

“I don’t know if you’re going to be behind the gun or in front of the gun, but I’m not OK with it anymore,” she told him.

Avalos left home. Three years later, he was sentenced to life in prison.

“I had no empathy,” he said. “I had a warped way of thinking. I belonged in prison.”

He compared his emotions to being inside watching a storm with pouring rain and blustery winds.

“You can see it, and you know it’s cold, but you can’t feel it,” he said. “That’s the way my feelings felt. I could see what was going on with people, but I couldn’t feel it because I had so much pain inside of me.”

As it turned out, the man Avalos hated growing up and blamed for leaving them homeless and struggling, his stepfather, was the man who changed his life, he said. 

The two spent five years in a cell together. There, he asked why his mom could never show emotion, could never hug him. 

“He told me about her sister — how when she was decapitated, my mother had to clean her brains off the wall,” Avalos said. “And how her mother was an alcoholic. She didn’t know how to deal with her own pain. She didn’t know how to show affection.”

Without empathy, and having now experienced it many times throughout his life, Avalos said he wouldn’t be here today. 

At a hearing where Avalos had the chance to get out of prison, he was asked questions about his life and upbringing. He didn’t want to talk about it, and thought about asking to just try again in three years. But he talked, and he was told he wasn’t the child he once was. He was told he was going home.

Steve Avalos, at left, and Jose Arellano talk about their experience growing up in gang culture and finding strength through empathy at Homeboy Industries on Thursday in the Amphitheater. KRISTEN TRIPLETT/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

Avalos was 34 then, having spent half of his life behind bars. He said Boyle was a blessing for him, and Homeboy Industries changed his life. There, Avalos began experiencing connections. For the first time in his life, he was laughing.

Now a leader at Homeboy like Arellano, Avalos recalled a man who spent as much of his life in jail as he had, except he’d also struggled with addiction. He cycled through a couple of programs with Homeboy, and he sat in front of Avalos trying to explain himself.

Avalos kept reassuring that he would be fine, but the man kept talking. This repeated several times, and Avalos got more frustrated. Then he realized the man was emotional. 

“I was looking at him with sympathy, not empathy,” he said. “What I realized was he already knew we had him. For the first time in his life, he was telling me his truth, but I wasn’t listening. I was only hearing.”

Instead, he said, empathy is about connection and allowing space to find that connection.

While in prison, one woman regularly visited his stepfather. Her own dad was jailed for 18 years and died when he was released. She vowed that she would become a lawyer and get Avalos’ stepfather out of prison. 

“She did the bar and failed every single time, and I was like, ‘This lady ain’t gonna be no lawyer,’ ” he said, drawing a laugh from the crowd.

Seven years later, however, she passed. 

“She was the one who got my father out on compassionate release, and she got me out of prison,” he said.  


Both Arellanos and Avalos closed with gratitude to Chautauqua. 

“There’s something I feel here in Chautauqua,” Arellanos said. “You guys make us feel like we’re a part of you, and that’s special, and that’s divine and that’s holy.”

Avalos said Chautauqua’s inclusivity with religions and people creates a safe space.

“When you’re in a safe place, you can find out the truth about who you truly are,” he said. “And when you begin there, everything in your life will begin to change.”

Pastor, police chief Rodriguez shares experiences with love, compassion, empathy



Edgar Rodriguez — the Moville, Iowa, chief of police and lead pastor of the New Hope Church — speaks Tuesday in the Amphitheater. DAVE MUNCH / PHOTO EDITOR

For several days, Edgar Rodriguez and his wife asked one of their sons to clean his room. On one particular day, his son wanted to go to a sleepover, so they struck a deal that if his room was clean, he could go.

Time came to leave, and his room was still unkempt. His chance was gone, and he was devastated. Not long after, his twin sister entered her parents’ bedroom in tears.

“I just hate that he can’t go to his sleepover,” she said. “Would it be OK if I helped him clean so he could go to his sleepover?”

They couldn’t say no to such an empathetic request, Rodriguez said. 

On Tuesday afternoon, Aug. 4, in the Amphitheater, Rodriguez presented his lecture, “Empathy: The Key for Human Survival,” part of Week Six’s Interfaith Lecture Series themed “Building a Culture of Empathy.”

Rodriguez is both a pastor of New Hope Evangelical Church and a police chief in the small, rural community of Moville, Iowa. 

When he first became police chief, his first task was hiring a new officer and several reserve officers because the ones that were in the department were too by-the-book, he said.

“They didn’t really care about the impact they would make in any person’s life,” he said. “If a person committed a crime, the arrest would be made, no questions asked. If the person would want to try and offer an explanation, it was never — or seldom — heard. I decided to change that.”

One of the officers he hired had zero police or military experience — he was home-schooled and a musician at a church. But, like the other people hired, he cared about the community, Rodriguez said.

On Monday night, that officer called Rodriguez and told him he had taken funds from the church to assist a mother and son who didn’t have a place to stay, and he did so without first consulting with Rodriguez.

Rodriguez applauded him, and said that was exactly why he was hired. 

Oftentimes, Rodriguez is asked about his dual careers. People wonder how he can be both a pastor and a police officer, which he thinks comes from the idea that police officers are unloving or uncaring. 

“I’ve been trying to change the image of police officers since I began,” he said. “We are more than protectors from evil. We are peacemakers. We are compassionate men and women. We love to serve the public.”

To solve the world’s issue of a lack of empathy, people should look to their creator, he said. 

“There are many stories and examples of God’s word that expresses, demonstrates and teaches empathy,” he said. “We are all born with it, but we have been desensitized from it.”

One of those stories is in Mark 1:40-42, the story of a man asking Jesus for a miracle. Jesus tells him to “be clean,” both performing a physical miracle and a mental one. The man had never felt such compassion before, Rodriguez said.

“Words of compassion can heal the injuries of a broken heart,” Rodriguez said. “Never underestimate the power of your words.”

Rodriguez, who grew up on the United States-Mexico border, remembers wishing he lived in a different family because of his father’s alcoholism. 

His mother tried to get his father to go to church with them every Sunday and Wednesday, but he was powerless against alcohol, Rodriguez said. He didn’t understand why his mother stayed married to him. 

“For a long time, I was angry at God for deciding to give my mother, brother and I the life we were experiencing,” he said. “It wasn’t until I grew older and began to give my life to God that I began to understand what my mother was doing. Her faith in God gave her wisdom and strength to give my father a love that I didn’t understand.”

Rodriguez said Romans 5:8 shows God’s love for humans, even though they are sinners — which is the same love Rodriguez’s mother demonstrated.

“I remember my father desperately trying to quit his alcohol addiction and stop hurting his family,” he said. “I remember the pain I felt, the worry I experienced, hoping my father would come home sober.”

His mother always told him she stayed because that was her choice of marriage. That love stuck with Rodriguez. 

Later in life, Rodriguez visited Honduras on a mission trip. The country had just been battered by Hurricane Mitch, and he heard stories of family members washed away by mudslides and rivers. He expected this phenomenon to shake people’s faith.

It did the opposite, he said.

“God seemed to be their tower of strength to get through their pain,” he said.

In addition, Rodriguez realized he could empathize with their pain. 

“I felt that same pit in my stomach when I saw my father intoxicated,” he said. “I felt the same pain as I saw my mother cry because my father’s chaos would drain all of my family emotionally. I felt that same worry when I expected my father to arrive home like a tornado. I noticed more and more how I would feel empathy when I witnessed someone else distressed.”

Rodriguez’s childhood feeling of pain is what propelled his ability to empathize as an adult, he said. He thinks everyone is capable of feeling it, but needs to address it head on. 

When he came home from Honduras, he told his wife it was time to do more than simply go to church every week, and she had been feeling the same way. 

Edgar Rodriguez — the Moville, Iowa, chief of police and lead pastor of the New Hope Church — speaks Tuesday in the Amphitheater. DAVE MUNCH / PHOTO EDITOR

Rodriguez completely started his life over, switching from an architecture major at the University of Georgia to a major in theology and pastoral ministries at Vennard College, a now-closed nondenominational Christian college in University Park, Iowa.

After graduating, they moved to Portland, Oregon, where Rodriguez first became a pastor. In 2010, the couple moved to Moville to save a dying church, he said.

“My message to the small church was a message of empathy,” he said. “I communicated to them that unless we engaged our community with love and compassion, they wouldn’t care if we existed. So, we began the journey to change from a self-indulgent church to a mission-minded church who would notice people’s needs in our community.”

After some time, he met a major of the sheriff’s office at a neighboring town’s city council meeting. Rodriguez was there asking if his church could do midweek services in the town’s park. The sheriff approached him afterward and said he was impressed with Rodriguez’s work.

That sheriff began attending church, and eventually asked Rodriguez to be a chaplain at the Woodbury County Sheriff’s Office. He accepted, and was now meeting with deputies, jailers and inmates at the county jail. 

“They would lock me in a little five-by-five concrete room with no windows and one entrance and one exit,” he said. “I would sit in front, across a little table, from (anyone from) petty thieves to murderers. I sat in front of gang members, domestic abusers, child abusers, and many more types of criminals.”

Their one commonality: Each took a wrong turn in life, he said. Most came from abusive homes, foster care or broken homes. 

“Most of them thought the path they chose was not one that they would ever choose, but it was what they felt was handed to them,” he said. “It was all they knew.”

Rodriguez saw his own life in many of theirs.

“I could see my father,” he said. “I could see my mother struggling to keep us together. I could identify myself with them. … I could have chosen drugs. I could have chosen alcohol or gangs. But the love of my mother — and other people who would show up in my life with encouraging words from time to time — kept me safe and present.”

The love and hope his mother had, and that he said he received from Jesus, allowed Rodriguez to pass on hope to inmates. He could help them think beyond their current state.

“I became their champion,” he said. “Sometimes, I believed in them more than they believed in themselves.” 

Rodriguez believed in them because he believed in his father to overcome his battle against alcohol — which he eventually did, giving in to Rodriguez’s mother’s church invitations. 

“He made a conscious decision to believe in God for the first time, and the power of God was with him,” Rodriguez said.

The jail could hardly keep Bibles on the shelf, and the sheriff asked Rodriguez if he would become a reserve deputy. Rodriguez accepted, and he soon realized after starting his service that he would encounter people he’d never meet at church. 

Moville eventually needed a new police officer, and the mayor and then-police chief asked Rodriguez to join.

“They told me the compassion I had for people was exactly what they wanted in the department,” he said. “So, it hit me that if I really wanted to help the broken and hurting, I needed to get involved and have a position that would make a difference in people’s lives.”

He did make a difference as a pastor, but as a police officer he got to help people actively losing control, he said.

“In essence, it put me with my father again,” he said. “Every time I encounter someone who made a bad choice, I see my father — and I feel a love for them that is unexplainable. I can see them past their present circumstance and exterior facade and see the person that never thought they would be in this predicament.”

On his first weekend on duty in Moville, Rodriguez was sent to pick up a woman with a warrant out for her arrest. It was a petty crime, and she just hadn’t gone to court, he said. When he arrived at her house, he didn’t want to arrest her. 

He saw, through the woman, his mother standing at the door. Rodriguez told her he would treat her with respect, asked if she needed to grab anything, and said that he would drive her to the jail but not handcuff her. 

On the half-hour drive to Sioux City, Rodriguez encouraged her, told her he would pray for her and would be there if she needed him for anything. It came up that he was a minister, and the woman attended his church that next Sunday. 

“She’s been walking into our church ever since,” he said. “She’s told me as many times as she can that I changed her life.”

In another story, from this year’s July 4, Rodriguez stopped a car that had a broken headlight. He expected to just give them a warning because most people don’t realize when a light goes out.

But, the driver didn’t want to follow orders. He got out of the vehicle and refused to get back inside. He told Rodriguez it wasn’t his car, that he was borrowing it, so Rodriguez had to check his ID. In the radio in his ear, dispatch asked if his radio was secured.

“When they say that, it’s not good,” Rodriguez said. 

The man had three warrants to his name — he was a dangerous gang member from Los Angeles. Three other deputies were on the way, but as usual in a rural community, they were all about a half-hour away.

“OK, well, hurry up,” he said.

The man became more and more jittery, and Rodriguez tried grabbing his wrist to handcuff him. Rodriguez lost grip, and the man took off running, prompting a chase. 

Rodriguez caught up, wrestled with the man and took out his taser gun. Before he could shoot, the man relented, and Rodriguez got him in handcuffs and to the back seat of his car.

“Then, I decided I needed to notice this individual,” he said. “There had to be more to the story.”

On the way to Sioux City, Rodriguez said he would help with the three warrants as much as possible, but the man had to be truthful with him. He asked him about his life and how he got here, which was similar to the other inmates Rodriguez met.

Rodriguez asked if he believed in a higher power, and the man said he used to but his prayers were never answered. 

Edgar Rodriguez — the Moville, Iowa, chief of police and lead pastor of the New Hope Church — speaks Tuesday in the Amphitheater. DAVE MUNCH / PHOTO EDITOR

“God isn’t a genie,” Rodriguez told him. “God is someone who wants to have a relationship.” 

The man cried and prayed with Rodriguez and asked God back into his life, he said, and on a bridge near the jail, fireworks began going off.

“Of course, after I told him that after you pray you’re not going to see a big bang, all of a sudden ‘bang, bang, bang,’ ” Rodriguez said. 

They arrived at the county jail, and the man was able to pay off the petty warrant he had in Woodbury County. One warrant was in Los Angeles and the other was in a second Iowa County. The jail tried calling the other county, but it wouldn’t answer.

That never happened, Rodriguez said.

After several attempts and waiting for a call back, they had no choice but to release the man and wait for the other county to follow up.

“He looked at me and said, ‘You did it!’ ” Rodriguez said.

The jail workers knew exactly what he was talking about. They’d seen it before with Rodriguez.

To close his lecture, Rodriguez asked the audience a question.

“Is there anything you wouldn’t do to help you?” he said.

Empathy is the embodiment of what one would do for themselves, but instead for others, he said.

“Empathy is the way to people’s hearts,” he said. “It makes you see past their exterior and sometimes their tough cover. Empathy is noticing and understanding what a person is going through and then sharing their feelings.”

Pastor, author Brian McLaren shares road to empathy, urges others to open minds



Brian McLaren delivers his Interfaith Lecture on “Studios of Empathy: Why, What, and How?” Monday in the Amphitheater. KRISTEN TRIPLETT / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

Brian McLaren was miles down a remote fishing trail in Pennsylvania when he heard a call. A few, actually, each time becoming more clear the call was his name.

“If anyone had gone through that much trouble to find me way, way back in this remote valley, it had to be bad news,” he said. 

McLaren was a 34-year-old pastor at the time, in the early 1990s, on a retreat. He had been experiencing some doubt in his faith. On the two-mile uphill hike back to his car, he could only be sure of his fast-beating heart, and unsure of anything to come. 

When he returned to the retreat center, he called his wife. 

That morning, their 6-year-old son was looking pale, so she took him to their pediatrician. When the results from a blood draw came, the order was strict: Get him to the hospital within the hour.

McLaren immediately began driving five hours south to the hospital.

“All I could think of was my precious little boy,” he said. “How much I loved him. How I would gladly trade places with him. My heart was also broken for my wife, who was having to handle this alone. Truth be told, I was more than a little bit worried about myself. I was already struggling. I was worn down. I was grappling with a crisis of faith.”

Through several rounds of tears and prayers, McLaren arrived at his new reality, one of bone marrow, spinal infusions and five-year survival rates. His son, Trevor, had acute lymphocytic leukemia. 

For months, he and his wife traded places at the hospital — they had three other children and jobs — rarely seeing each other besides the tag-outs. One day, when he was home alone, finally with a chance to pause, McLaren read through a newsletter from an organization that supported parents of kids with cancer. 

On the second-to-last page was a list. On it, the names of children who had passed away in the previous month. Next to their names were their parents’ names. McLaren was struck.

“I began to feel my own pain,” he said, “the pain that in some ways I didn’t have time to feel in the rush of the previous months. I felt the threat that had crashed into my son’s life, and into my family’s life. … My pain joined with the pain and the grief of these other parents whose names were on that page.”

McLaren felt their pain as if it was his own. Indeed, it was his own pain, he said.

“It was as close as if there was this one huge ocean of pain out here, and I had just sailed down my river and entered into it,” he said. “Each of those names of a lost child was as dear to those parents on that page as Trevor was to me.”

He mourned each family’s loss of birthdays, graduations, weddings, careers and life, he said. His empathy was spreading uncontrollably, like the waves that spread from a rock that just splashed in water, he said. The experience, to him, was breathtaking and profound. 

“The feeling was pure,” he said. “So pure. I would even use the word ‘holy’ to describe it.”

McLaren read the poem “What They Did Yesterday Afternoon,” by Warsan Shire. Shire was born in Kenya and raised in England. In the poem, Shire writes of her aunt’s house set ablaze, and how she prayed for her two countries. One was thirsty, the other was on fire, and both needed water, she wrote. 

“later that night / i held an atlas in my lap / ran my fingers across the whole world / and whispered / where does it hurt? / it answered / everywhere / everywhere / everywhere,” Shire wrote. 

Brian McLaren delivers his Interfaith Lecture on “Studios of Empathy: Why, What, and How?” Monday in the Amphitheater. KRISTEN TRIPLETT / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

McLaren further described this experience and the importance of empathy in his Interfaith Lecture at 1 p.m. Monday in the Amphitheater. His lecture, “Studios of Empathy: Why, What, and How?” was the first of three Week Six lectures themed “Building a Culture of Empathy.”

Empathy is like a radar dish, McLaren said. It’s turned inward at birth, helping people understand when their diaper needs changed or when they’re hungry. As one grows up, the radar becomes more sensitive and begins focusing outside of oneself.

For some, it’s focused just on their nuclear family. For others, it may include an extended family, neighbors, members of the same race, political party or nation, he said. For others still, it detects the feelings of strangers, and even others are empathetic to other species. 

Psychologists analyze empathy in cognitive, or intellectual, dimensions and affective, or emotional, dimensions.

“Cognitively, empathy involves the ability to understand perspective, to understand that what is a win for you could be a loss for somebody else or vice versa,” McLaren said. “Empathy involves personal connection, the ability to feel something that another person feels, and it also involves personal distress — how hurt, motivated or incapacitated you are by someone else’s pain.”

Without distress, McLaren said, empathy will fade away from consciousness like static electricity. Too much distress, however, can paralyze a person. If someone on a crime scene faints at the sight of blood, they are another casualty, he said. 

“That’s why psychologists say healthy empathy means being able to imagine what life is like in someone else’s shoes, yet staying in your own shoes,” he said. “It means being touched by others’ pain, but not being hopelessly and helplessly absorbed into it.”

When someone can strike that balance, they can act constructively, creating a more sustainable and habitual pattern.

“It becomes a part of who you are,” he said.

McLaren battled doubt in his faith. His son battled leukemia. Both survived, but are forever changed. 

“He didn’t simply go back to being a normal kid,” McLaren said. “It turned him into a philosopher. It gave him a seriousness and a fire to live while he’s alive. Now, in his mid-30s, he’s never lost the ability to let his pain not divert him from the pain of others, but find a connection.”

McLaren understood the doubtful aspects of his religion, Christianity, deserved to be doubted, he said. He felt a moral obligation to challenge and improve it. 

“The pain of doubt sensitized me to the cries of the earth, and cries of the poor,” he said. “The cries of the suffering, the misunderstood and the forgotten. It let me hold an atlas on my lap and ask it where it was hurting, and pause and listen for a reply.”

This idea of doubt and deconstruction was apparent in the New Testament, in Matthew 5-7, McLaren said, but he never realized it. 

“(Jesus) advocated for taking the empathy that we naturally feel for people who are like us, and who like us, and extending that, without discrimination, to others,” McLaren said.

In this same passage, Jesus tells of the creator’s concern for flowers and birds, he said.

“God feels a pang of sorrow for every sparrow that falls from the sky,” he said. “God cherishes the beauty of a single wildflower that only blooms for one short afternoon.” 

McLaren said the country and world today lacks empathy.

“The future of empathy in our culture is not only in question,” he said. “It is in peril.”

Dictators, authoritarians and demagogues know to create hostility against a common enemy in order to build loyalty, even if the enemy doesn’t exist, McLaren said. 

“It’s the creation of fear and the invitation to join in enmity against a common enemy that turns a crowd into a mob ready to do anything for that leader,” he said. “In fact, a good definition of an enemy is a human being who has been dehumanized to the point where we feel justified in having no empathy at all.”

Cable news outlets, McLaren said, know that keeping people afraid and in fear boosts their ratings and increases profits. Corporate leaders and economists often believe empathy is a liability instead of an asset, he said. He read an August 2018 tweet from then-Prime Minister of Israel Benjamin Netanyahu.

“The weak crumble, are slaughtered and are erased from history while the strong, for good or ill, survive,” Netanyahu wrote. “The strong are respected, and alliances are made with the strong, and in the end peace is made with the strong.”

Brian McLaren delivers his Interfaith Lecture on “Studios of Empathy: Why, What, and How?” Monday in the Amphitheater. KRISTEN TRIPLETT / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

McLaren agreed that strength is needed in the world.

“But strength without empathy can make you a real monster,” he said, drawing applause from the Amp crowd. “And a world run by competing monsters is not a world you want to bequeath to your grandchildren.”

In trying to figure out how to develop empathy before it’s too late, one might then question whose job it is to teach such empathy, McLaren said.

“Sadly, the answer is almost no one,” he said.

Politicians are too focused on short-term gains, and businesses prefer profits, he said. Educators might be a good choice, but no standardized test looks at empathy.

“If they did, some politicians would be shouting to defund the schools,” he said. 

McLaren believes the true point and highest contribution of religion is to create a culture of empathy, compassion and love. It will take a revolutionary strategy as detailed as the moonshot program in the 1960s, he said.  

Movements must begin somewhere, he said. He highlighted important figures such as Pope Francis, Bishop Michael Curry, the Institution’s Vice President of Religion Rt. Rev. V. Gene Robinson, and Tuesday’s Interfaith Lecture Series speaker Edgar Rodriguez.

“Yes, there are many religious leaders who are oblivious and are a part of the problem, but there are many who could become a part of the solution if they just hear our voices raised from today onward,” McLaren said. 

Empathy is at the heart of most religions, he said, but he understands that many faith communities will not change. 

“They’re never going to turn their radar dish further outside,” he said. “Here’s what I’d say about them: Let them be. Nobody can force them to change until they’re ready, and they’re not ready. I know this: Many of us are ready.”

McLaren called on people to imagine Methodist or Catholic churches where participants were urged to feel the pain inflicted on them and that they inflicted on others. Or to imagine a synagogue, mosque or Southern Baptist gathering where participants were urged to feel a connection to strangers just as they would to their own family, because they, too, are someone’s family. 

He said to imagine congregations understanding compassion fatigue and the need for retreats, and to understand their inherited religious narratives can constrict empathy and increase hostility. 

There are a few steps to reaching such imaginations, he said. First is bringing together thought leaders and content creators to create resources, train trainers and network across religions, he said. 

“Build it from the grassroots,” he said. “Look for the green grass on both sides of every religious fence.”

He said to provide resources through all necessary means and to give encouragement to local leaders to innovate. Leaders should come together to share best practices within their religious groups and across religious groups, he said. 

“Expect strong opposition from gatekeepers,” he said. “Empathize even with them. But do not be intimidated. Use each criticism as an opportunity to clarify your message for those who are open.”

Lastly, he said to focus efforts on parents teaching children, so they will teach their peers and create youth leaders.

“If you take an atlas tonight, and hold it in your lap, and you run your fingers across the whole world, yes, everywhere you will hear cries of pain,” he said. “But, if you listen, you will also hear something else that’s everywhere.”

This sound will be the song of those opening their pain and empathy for the world, he said. 

“It might be today … you dare to open your heart to an empathy that is so big and so pure, that you might even call it holy,” he said. 

Israel-based comedian Benji Lovitt gives permission to laugh in toughest times

Comedian Benji Lovitt delivers his lecture, “The Power of Humor: Laughing to Keep from Crying,” July 28, 2021 in the Amphitheater. DAVE MUNCH / PHOTO EDITOR


As he walked onto the Amphitheater stage Wednesday afternoon, comedian Benji Lovitt thanked everyone for coming to his first annual lecture at Chautauqua. He said the organizers didn’t know this would be an annual event, but he’s working it out.

Lovitt wanted to get to know his audience more, so he asked them to raise their hands to a series of questions, such as if this was also their first visit, or if they’re watching the Olympics.

“Finally, raise your hand if you’re carrying a large amount of cash as we speak. Keep those hands up, let me look,” he said.

Lovitt flew from Tel Aviv, Israel, to Chautauqua for his lecture “The Power of Humor: Laughing to Keep from Crying,” the final Interfaith Lecture Series of Week Five, themed “The Authentic Comedic Voice: Truth Born of Struggle,” a week in partnership with the National Comedy Center.

When he told people he was coming to New York State, he realized how annoying it was for people to ignore every word after “York.” People asked him if he was going to Broadway.

“Not unless they moved it,” he said. “It’s off-off-off-Broadway. It’s so off, it’s back on.”

He noted a stark difference in the weather here compared to Israel, particularly when walking through Palestine Park.

“I gotta say, I think I like it more than the real one,” she said. “No humidity, no fighting; I might stick around.”

Lovitt also pointed out a ceramics class on the grounds costing $150. His lecture cost $15.

“What are they sculpting? Pyramids? That means you need 10 of me to get an equal value.”

But, he was happy to be in person after a year and half of Zoom events. 

“Stand-up by Zoom is awful. Communication is one way. I get no positive feedback. I’m lucky to see anyone smiling. Reminds me of my childhood,” he said. “My mom hates that joke.”

Complaining is a part of Jewish humor, he said. He told a joke of a Jewish woman in the hospital who told her doctor she wanted to be transferred. He asked if it was the food, she said it was delicious and that she couldn’t kvetch, the Yiddish word for complain. It wasn’t the room, nor the staff — she said both were great. The doctor asked her why she wanted to be transferred then.

“I can’t kvetch,” she said.

Lovitt said complaints, though, should never be about important things, just if it’s hot out or the line is long. It’s a way of coping and existing, he said. 

Comedy is a silly, foolish or witty way to deviate from the expected reality, and it can be insightful and enlightening, Lovitt said. 

“Most of all, comedy can be cathartic and therapeutic, releasing tension in a way that allows the joke teller and the audience to heal and draw power,” he said. 

Lovitt said people often ask him where he comes up with his material.

“I’ll tell you where I don’t get it from: happiness and success,” he said. “There’s nothing funny about that. Plus, I have neither.”

If everything has gone well for someone, then there can’t be anything to complain about, he said. Comedians talk about their partners’ nagging, bad cooking or pet peeves, not their perfect eggplant parmesan, he said. 

Lovitt referenced a “Saturday Night Live” sketch, “Word Association,” starring Richard Pryor and Chevy Chase. In it, the interviewer, Chase, is asking Pryor’s character for word associations, which turns into Black and white racial slurs coming from both men. The idea came from Paul Mooney, who had a poor relationship with Lorne Michaels and NBC executives.

“After all the BS I’ve been put through to get here, and the bleeping cross-examination Lorne subjects me to, I decided to do a job interview of my own,” Lovitt said, reading from a letter written by Mooney. The censorings were Lovitt’s edits. 

This humor demonstrates the ability to speak the truth in comedy and send a message, Lovitt said. 

Lovitt’s outsider perspective comes from living in Israel. He was born in Dallas, and had lived in other cities like Atlanta and New York City before deciding to make his international move. He’s been living there for the last 15 years.

Comedian Benji Lovitt delivers his lecture “The Power of Humor: Laughing to Keep from Crying,” July 28, 2021 in the Amphitheater. DAVE MUNCH / PHOTO EDITOR

His stand-up career became much more serious in Israel, he said. 

“First of all, performing in English as an expat makes you a big fish in a small pond, which is far less intimidating and dog-eat-dog than the clubs in New York City,” he said. “But, more than that, if a good comedian needs diversity and a little bit of suffering for comedic inspiration, I found myself sitting on a gold mine.”

Immigrating was the hardest thing Lovitt ever did, he said, because of the different language, cultural norms and social practices. However, it’s provided him with material for a lifetime, he said.

“Only in Israel does a business that’s closed on the Sabbath advertise being open 24/6,” he said. 

Israel as a country is 73 years old, he said, so there are plenty of issues with government, infrastructure and the economy, but if a comic could go back to 1849 and see the United States at the same age, he said there would be plenty to make fun of there.

When comedians start their careers, they will make material out of anything, Lovitt said. He used to discuss Taco Bell, sports commentators and the Backstreet Boys, but life in Israel matured his routine. 

“Only after my move did I really find my comedic voice and character,” he said. “The confused, wide-eyed and frustrated immigrant just trying to survive. It wasn’t hard to find this voice, and it wasn’t a character. This was my life.”

He realized he wasn’t alone, though. Other immigrants and tourists from English-speaking countries found comfort in Lovitt’s comedic takes, he said. 

“My fellow immigrants and I share a bond for sharing the same challenging journey,” he said. 

Lovitt himself found comfort in people’s positive feedback.

“A little humor goes a long way,” he said. “It reminds you that you’re not crazy, there’s nothing wrong with you and you’re not alone.”

Lovitt said he connected with a larger audience during a severely unfunny period: war. In summer 2014, Israel and Hamas were engaged in what the Israeli government called Operation Protective Edge. It was a depressing period, Lovitt said, even though he had never served in an army nor had any relatives who did. 

“The most intense war I watched as a kid were the Celtics and Lakers,” he said. “And I’m not trying to be flippant here. That’s the language we use in America, especially in sports.”

Instead of sitting around and feeling guilty that he couldn’t emotionally relate on the same level as some, he decided to do what he did best: make jokes. He called this the most Jewish thing anyone could do.

“Now, anyone who knows anything about comedy knows that a good comedian does not punch down, like to make fun of victims or people with less power than you,” he said. “Making fun of deaths or suffering is wrong and bullying. But, making fun of yourself, the government or someone trying to hurt you, that’s fair game.”

During that summer, Lovitt posted hundreds of times on Facebook, mocking news headlines, sirens alerting people to run to bomb shelters, and more. 

“When the siren goes off, and you’re on the crapper, you might as well just laugh. #ProtectiveEdge #UnprotectedDump,” Lovitt said in one post. 

He shared another.

“Did CNN really run the headline ‘Ceasefire Holds Despite Fighting’? In other news, abstinence holds despite intercourse,” he had written.

He continued sharing more, highlighting that he was mocking the media, high cost of living, Israeli drivers and the bureaucracy — and not the average Palestinian, he said. 

Sometimes, on particularly hard news days, Lovitt said he stepped back from the computer and realized the timing would not be right. His friends reminded him that he wasn’t someone in a safe zone far away from the country making fun of the situation, but was literally running to bomb shelters.

Plus, Lovitt received uplifting responses from his readers.

“I even have my mom in the States following you now to help her realize that though this situation sucks, we must continue on with our lives the best we can,” read one response.

Comedian Benji Lovitt delivers his lecture “The Power of Humor: Laughing to Keep from Crying,” July 28, 2021 in the Amphitheater. DAVE MUNCH / PHOTO EDITOR

In another Lovitt shared, someone thanked him for the humor and for bringing lightness to heavy times.

“I know comics are supposed to go for the laughs, but when I got feedback like that, it affected me a lot more deeply,” he said. “I thought, ‘This is bigger than just a comedy show.’ ”

On one particularly violent day, 13 soldiers were killed in a military operation. Lovitt was the first act at a comedy fundraiser that night. He wasn’t immediately sure what to do, but he knew he couldn’t cancel the show, not that he had the decision to do so, he said.

“What I’ve learned from Israelis is, almost always, the show must go on,” he said. “If we cancel the show anytime anything awful happens, nobody would ever perform.”

Shootings, murders, crime and people not being able to afford insurance are daily events in America, he said, but its not a reason to cancel shows, concerts or sporting events. 

On a vacation in Ethiopia, Lovitt questioned many life decisions when he saw some of the levels of poverty there. One of his friends told him he couldn’t lose his mind trying to save everyone who needs saving.

“You just have to appreciate and thank God for what you have, and try to be the best human being you can be,” Lovitt’s friend said.

At the comedy fundraiser, Lovitt addressed the situation head on. Then, everyone moved on.

“It meant for 90 minutes, they put bad feelings to the side, engaged in self care and returned to their lives,” he said.

In this last year, Lovitt said America has learned to appreciate the ability to laugh to keep from crying. 

Nothing is funny about the millions of people who have died of COVID-19, he said, but happiness and laughter don’t need to disappear. From the pandemic’s onset, he said the internet was full of images, videos, jokes and content meant to make people smile and laugh. That humor — and vaccines — got us this far, he said.

Twice during this last year, two organizers who hired Lovitt told him to avoid pandemic-related jokes because people didn’t want to hear it.

“Those people did not understand comedy,” he said. 

On Monday night, Lewis Black talked about COVID-19 during his stand-up routine in the Amp. Lovitt said it would have been weird and disappointing if he didn’t. 

“It’s not about making light of something or being insensitive,” Lovitt said. “It’s about giving people hope.” 

Of course, Lovitt said, when dealing with sensitive subjects people may want to leave the jokes to professionals, or make 100% certain it’s a good and safe joke. Otherwise, it’s almost always OK to laugh.

“My friends, life is hard. It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t accept it. We should never stop fighting injustice, defeating pandemics and trying to make the world a better place,” he said. “But, if we forget to laugh along the way, we may not make it to the other side.”

Comedian Leighann Lord brings stand-up to Interfaith Lecture Series



Stand-up comedian and writer Leighann lord gives a morning lecture Tuesday July 27, 2021 in the Amphitheater. KRISTEN TRIPLETT/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

All bets were off when Leighann Lord took the Amphitheater stage on Tuesday afternoon.

She opened first with a brag on the Institution, calling it the best adult summer camp she’s ever attended. She followed with a little brag on herself: Her audience was a little bigger than Lewis Black’s on Monday night, she said. But she likes Black.

“He’s so angry, he’s like an honorary Black woman,” she said. 

Lord loved that so many people brought their dogs to Chautauqua, and asked if the cats were at home fending for themselves. She recently adopted a cat, and said the people at the shelter tried to get her to take more, saying her cat had a girlfriend.

“That’s a hard ‘no,’ because I’m not going to be the only single person in my house. Let me be very clear, I’m his woman now,” she said.

Having always been a dog person, she was used to dogs’ willingness to give unconditional love.

“Cats teach you about consent,” she said.

Lord was just getting started with her Interfaith Series Lecture, but her lecture followed a stand-up comedy format. The act, “I’m Not Funny, I’m Brave,” was the second of three lectures themed “The Authentic Comedic Voice: Truth Born of Struggle.”

Hailing from South Jamaica, Queens, Lord said people often get nervous when she tells people she’s from New York.

“They think I’m going to rob them or something,” she said. “So I do. I don’t want to disappoint. I’m such a people pleaser.”

Lord is an accomplished and well-traveled comedian, having performed in all 50 states.

“I can honestly say we don’t need all 50,” she said. 

She’s also performed internationally, including in England, where she said the pound was worth much more than the dollar. 

“So much so that I found a pound on the street, brought it back and bought a house,” she said. 

In reality, Lord did buy a house recently — an old one, which garnered understanding groans from the crowd. She went through a long list of maintenance issues. When her water heater broke, the plumber said there were birds in her chimney.

“They sound like freeloaders,” she told the plumber.

A chimney guy got rid of the birds, but found a crack in the chimney. He showed her pictures; she could not discern whether they were of the chimney or his colonoscopy. Later, a guy came to fix her roof and found squirrels. She called an exterminator, but it is illegal in New York to kill squirrels. Lord said it’s because they have a strong political lobby in Albany.

Instead, a man came, trapped the squirrels, and moved them across town. 

“Sounds sketchy, doesn’t it?” she said. “Because how do I know that some guy over there isn’t trapping squirrels and bringing them back over here? You can’t exactly go up to a squirrel and say, ‘Hey, you don’t look like you’re from around here,’ because that’s racist.”

Lord has been in and out of Home Depot, she said, including when she needed a new light bulb. She brought it to the store, but had to wait multiple shifts for the one and only Home Depot employee who knows where anything is arrived, which she said is the case at every Home Depot. He got her the right bulb, though.

But, it didn’t work. She called an electrician who told her the house’s entire electrical grid needed to be replaced.

“So, I’m dating the electrician ‘cause momma is all out of Bitcoin,” she said.

Lord moved on. She wanted to keep introducing herself. Turns out, she is the first person in her nuclear family to graduate from college, having attended UCLA — the University on the Corner of Lexington Avenue, she joked.

As an English major, Lord said it was a challenge to date online, because she is constantly proofreading, editing and sending in corrections. She can’t understand how one can be a man of his word if he can’t even spell the word. 

Originally, she went as a finance major, but she wasn’t good at math. No worries, she said, because a lot of people are not good at math. 

Recently, at the grocery store, her total was $8.58. She gave a $10 bill, then found 50 cents and handed it to the cashier, who was mortified. She had no idea how much change to give, she told Lord. Lord told her $10, because she’s not good at math.

Lord is thinking of going back to school, however. She said graduate school was a lot of fun for her.

“But I’m still uncomfortable telling people I went to Harvard, especially since I didn’t,” she said. “People get mad at affirmative action; not so much about affirmative imagination.”

College is too expensive nowadays, she said. Moreover, she doesn’t understand why there aren’t any sales, such as buying a bachelor’s degree and getting a doctorate for half price.

For a few years, Lord worked in a financial service’s communications department. She found out about layoffs before others, but couldn’t tell them, so she tried to hint to them not to buy a house.

“I worked with financial experts, people who used to say the housing crisis was caused by people who couldn’t pay their mortgage,” she said. “That’s like saying slavery was caused by people not running away fast enough.”

Lord is self-employed now, but a drawback to that is she can’t call in sick because she knows she’s lying, she said. 

Although she attended Catholic school, Lord isn’t Catholic now. She didn’t leave formally, she just unfriended them on Facebook, she said. She does think people should choose their religion based on their personality. Laid-back people should practice zen, nature lovers should be druids and those in a hurry should switch to Geico, she said.

“I thought about being a Buddhist, but then I read that Buddha left his wife and baby to seek enlightenment,” she said. “Wow. Buddha is a deadbeat dad. That’s why you don’t hear about the second coming of Buddha. He’d have to pay a lot of back child support.”

As a New Yorker, Lord said she is genuinely intrigued by the Jewish religion and culture, and thought about converting because she was dating a Jew. 

“But as a Black woman, I think I have all the oppression I can handle,” she said.

She thought of another possible religious conversion.

“Islam seems progressive and friendly for women,” she said, trailing off to another laugh from the audience. “I have trouble with cultures that think women should be covered up so as not to sexually tempt the men. Apparently, these men have no self-control. Honestly, if that’s the case, then maybe instead of covering the women, we should blindfold the men.”

The Amp echoed with cheering and applause.

Ultimately, Lord said she’s a humanist, but humans are a hard species to love for her. So maybe she’s more of a doggist, she said. 

Religion is admittedly hard to joke about because everyone believes something different, she said. For example, a friend of hers is convinced aliens built the pyramids because they said we have no real idea who built it. 

“I said, ‘Dude, I don’t know who put the shingles on the roof of my house. Doesn’t mean Klingons did it,’ ” Lord told her friend.

Looking at the week, Lord agreed with other speakers that people lately have been on edge and angry.

“Which is sad, because Black women, we were angry first,” she said. “We had a good 200- to 300-year start.” 

Lord is currently in therapy, and she said it was expensive. One guy wanted to charge her $150 an hour, and she said she could just talk to the voices in her head for free. 

“I do recommend therapy to self-help books,” she said. “I don’t think mental health should be do-it-yourself. The no. 1 killer in the U.S. right now is stress. The no. 2 killer is this dude on my block named Quan. Actually, it’s Killer Quan because, you know, Instagram.”

Stand-up comedian and writer Leighann lord gives a morning lecture Tuesday July 27, 2021 in the Amphitheater. KRISTEN TRIPLETT/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

Actually, Lord’s stress comes from watching too much Fox News and CNN — she watches both so she can be equally misinformed, she said. 

Her biggest issue with politics is that it shouldn’t matter how much money someone has, she said, but how attractive they look. 

“I didn’t vote for Obama because he’s Black, I voted for him because he’s cute,” she said. “I honestly think the president of the United States should be drop-dead gorgeous. If you’re going to screw up the country for four, possibly eight, years then you better be easy on the eyes.”

She does try to keep up with the news, but doesn’t understand much of what’s happening in China. 

“But, I don’t think we should piss off the people who sew our clothes, cook our food and make our toys,” she said.

Russia is confusing to her, too, because the U.S. and Russia went from World War II allies to the Cold War, Cuban missile crisis, six James Bond movies and “Rocky IV.”

“Some will remember in 2008 when Russia invaded Georgia,” she said. “George Bush didn’t know what to do. He was calling up Jimmy Carter like, ‘You’re from Georgia, do something.’ ”

Lord moved on from politics to talk about health. She said she went to the doctor last week, and he told her no caffeine, no fatty foods and no alcohol. She told him, no copay. 

She acknowledged she had gained some weight, and she really wanted Botox and liposuction, but her budget called for self-acceptance. 

When shopping, she can’t believe that women’s sizes start at size 0. She wonder if a baby starts at negative 42. 

“You are not a size 0 if people can see you,” she said. 

Lord once had a bad case of fibroids, so much so she looked pregnant, she said. At dinner one night, she ordered a glass of merlot, and her waiter questioned her decision. She told him he was right and ordered a rum and Coke instead.

Lord did have surgery — she got a myomectomy. 

“So I guess I gentrified my uterus,” she said. “It’s very beautiful now.”

Lord said she is baffled that people try to tell women what to do with their bodies. 

“It just doesn’t add up,” she said. “One egg, 1 million sperm and I’m the problem?”

She wants people to be mothers if they want, but she said it’s hard with her 77- and 84-year-old children. Caregiving for her parents has been a true role reversal, she said.

“I took my mom to the dentist, and she’s dragging her feet and doesn’t want to get in the chair,” she said. “I heard myself say, ‘If you behave yourself, I’ll take you to the liquor store.’ ”

Aging is a funny thing to Lord. She said she is at an age where police officers are looking really young to her. She saw one cop who she thought was trick-or-treating. 

“I said, ‘Hey, little boy, want some candy?’ I got arrested,” she said.

Lord has realized the body doesn’t age all at once. 

“My taste buds are still tasting,” she said. “My colon is not a team player. My heart is still young. My knees walked to freedom with Harriet Tubman.”

She doesn’t like to share her age — she said it’s just another way for people to discriminate. One of her biggest fears is when she’s much older, she’ll be murdered and the people on the news will say her age. 

Lord said she is taping a Showtime special called “Funny Women of a Certain Age” next month, and she said she loves that women are 52% of the population but only make 85 cents to the dollar a man makes.

“That’s why I don’t feel bad about shoplifting,” she said.

Furthermore, she said, Black women only make 65 cents  — so if someone didn’t like a joke, they should realize she only wrote 65% of it, she said.

If time is money, she said, and she isn’t getting paid a full dollar, then her 12-hour shift should be reduced to eight; her 9 to 5 is now 9 to 2, and her weekend should start on Wednesday.

It was time to wrap up, and Lord wanted the audience to reflect on everything they just heard. Seriously, this time. The title of her talk mentions bravery, and she said there is bravery in coming on stage to talk about issues that, on the surface, are not funny.

“I joked about crime, gentrification, travel, education, money, homeownership, squirrels, higher education, affirmative action, employment, unemployment, the 2008 financial crisis, the three major religions with honorable mentions to Buddhism, humanism and atheism, stereotypes, mental health, politics, foreign policy, health insurance, women’s health, female body autonomy, caregiving, aging parents, ageism, gender and ethnic pay inequality with a possible solution,” she said. 

Ultimately, Lord talked about life. 

“I use my comedy to enlighten and entertain because I believe humor makes people happy,” she said. “Happiness gives us hope, and my hope is if we can laugh together, we can live together.” 

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



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



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



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



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



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



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



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



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.”

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