A Note from Ft. Benning Georgia
by Rabbi Michael Lerner
The demonstration against the School of the Americas, the primary place training people from the armies of repression in Central and South America (and for all we know, also at Guantanamo and Iraq) to implement torture and “disappearance” or outright murder of dissenters (that would be you and me if we lived there), was an amazing example of what a Spiritual Progressive event could be.
Organized by Catholic Priest Father Roy Bourgeious and a collective of amazingly wonderful young people who have become the active organizers, the School of the Americas Watch invites people to come to Fort Benning, Georgia once a year on the weekend before Thanksgiving to protest what they describe as “The School of the Assassins.” And they have the facts so masterfully organized that in some way one feels that if anything they are underestimating the evil done by the U.S. government through the School of the Americas. The facts are there to be seen: that the leaders of the military juntas, the torturers, the people identified as leading or organizing mass slayings in Chile and Argentina, in Colombia, Peru, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Mexico, Honduras, Venezuela, had been trained at the School of the Americas (which periodically changes its name so that it can appear as though it is something different, though it still continues doing the same thing).
The weekend began with workshops, with a teach-in, with great musicians, and with a very impressive Catholic mass attended by several thousand at which the major focus was on the 6 Catholic priests and their housekeeper and her daughter who were slaughtered by troops under the control of one of these murderers, though all the others were also remembered. It was a very moving experience.
Sunday, there was a mass rally at the gates of Ft. Benning, which had been surrounded by new fences and barbed wire and heavy contingents of police and helicopters overhead. After short talks by Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney, Congressman Dennis Kucinich, me (Rabbi Lerner), Sister Mary Waskowiak (President of the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas, Father Roy Bourgeiois, and music from Holly Near and the Indigo Girls, and the crimes of each country’s School of Americas graduates were mentioned by people from those countries (many in Spanish with English translators) the real focus of the day began: a solemn procession of the close to 30,000 people in attendance, in which many of the names of the disappeared or slaughtered were read one by one, and after each name, the entire throng would call out “Presente” (“here”—meaning that we would not let their spirits and their memory die). The overwhelming sadness gripped us all, as people who had lost their families grieved publicly and all of us wondered how the U.S. could still be training and doing this kind of murder and torture (though it was not hard to remember that it had been the Democratic Pelosi-led Congress that had just passed legislation a few months ago broadening the president’s authority to limit civil liberties, and that thanks to Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Sen. Charles Schumer, we now have a Democratic Senate confirming the nomination of an Attorney General who openly admits he doesn’t consider water-boarding to be torture).
There were other aspects of the day—music, puppeteers, and joyous affirmation of life. But what was so impressive was that almost everything was kept within the confines of the spiritual meaning of the day. Absent were anarchists trying to escalate the struggle into violence, or people arguing that this or that speaker wasn’t good enough or that the organizing was screwed up for reason a, b or c. The normal sniveling and picking on each other and on the leadership just wasn’t happening. Instead, people were able to transcend the typical “how does this event feel to ME?” focus and put their energy on grieving and affirming the lives of those who had died (not all of the hundred thousand or more who have been killed by the graduates of the School of the Americas were called by name, but several thousand were). The music was lively, but there were rituals that were familiar to the mostly Catholic participants, most of whom raised little wooden crosses that had been distributed them, tens of thousands of them, each time someone’s name was responded to by the call “presente.”
This has become a stirring annual gathering of the Catholic Left in the U.S.—probably the largest such gathering that ever takes place each year. And though the Catholic Left is not the dominant voice in the Church, its presence here was a beautiful embodiment of what such a Catholic Left could look like were it to have more power in the church. There were students from Catholic high schools and colleges from all around the Eastern U.S. (not much presence from the West, lots from the Midwest)—so there were thousands and thousands of young people aged 15-27, making this gathering far more representative of a cross section of the age range of Americans than any I have attended since the war in Iraq began.
In a workshop that I led before the procession, I found great receptivity to the idea of a Strategy of Generosity and the Global Marshall Plan. I’m truly hoping that my presence there will lead to more Catholics becoming involved in the NSP.
But there were troubling questions that came up as I tried to imagine how we might organize an NSP spiritual progressive gathering that could similarly attract tens of thousands of people. Among those questions:
1. Would the “secular spiritual but not “religious” members of NSP, the progressive Protestants from all our Protesnt denominations, our progressive Buddhists, our progressive Jews and the Unitarians, and the feminists, and the gays in our community be willing to be in an organization with people who differed with them on questions of sexuality and abortion? Or would the progressive Catholics be willing to be in such an organization?
2. Could the different branches of our various religious traditions really tolerate difference in a community in which we had people with really different worldviews (e.g. my wife and I found ourselves feeling very uncomfortable when one of the priests at a mass earlier in the weekend started reading passages from the New Testament that referenced the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem some forty years after Jesus was crucified, in a text that seemed to be saying that that was really Jesus’ plan for the world, whereas Jews see that kind of statement as part of the very supercessionist “you Jews are history” discourse that Vatican II was meant to overcome, or when similar emphasis was placed on the Jews betraying Jesus to the Romans, an account which has been historically questioned by many Christian scholars, but apparently not in a way that has entered the consciousness of progressive Catholics—all of which raised the question if we ourselves could feel comfortable with that aspect of some people’s readings of the New Testament that we believe historically led to the persecution of the Jews by the church and eventually to the popular Christian-induced European anti-Semitism that culminated in the Holocaust).
3. Can we develop a liturgy or rituals for our NSP that have the depth and spiritual resonance that the various particular religions have, without falling into some kind of what some people describe (somewhat unfairly, I believe) as “New Age mush” (namely, rituals without history or common consent backing them up, rituals that feel more like they are affirming the individualism that is so pernicious in our society rather than building a new kind of spiritual community with discipline, a sense of responsibility to each other, and enough spiritual substance to feel like it addresses the major issues of life and death in our world)? 4. Do we have in the NSP people willing to be both part of their own
religious or spiritual community and also to help build an interfaith community, or would we increasingly only attract those who have no such religious community, again raising all the issues in point no. 3 in an even more immediate and pressing form? Can we get people to share rituals and religious life of their own particular form without feeling exposed and vulnerable in ways that distract them from the power of the rituals—if they were sharing their rituals and prayer in an interfaith community (it didn’t work for me on Friday night when I led Shabbat services for 70 people, and it turned out that only about 8 were Jewish, so I ended up teaching instead of actually being myself into the prayers, and then that doesn’t work for me, so I imagine it won’t work for others, although maybe that problem would have been far smaller had there been many more Jews in attendance—as- it was, one such Jew approached me and tried to convince me that my very presence at this event was a Kiddush hashem, a sanctification of the name of God, because apparently it was the first time this event has ever had a Jew speaking from the Jewish tradition, as I was, de facto representing the Rabbis for Human Rights that both my wife and I are members of, and de facto teaching a Jewish perspective to tens of thousands of non-Jews who were avidly listening as I explained a Jewish conception, or more correctly my particular Jewish conception, of God to the assembled groups, though honestly I would have preferred to have had hundreds of rabbis and thousands of Jews lifting magen davids when the names were being called out to the tens of thousand sin the procession. In fact, one reason I’m writing all of this is that I hope to attract some of the more committed social justice activists from all different religions, and especially my own, to help me figure all this out in a constructive and God-serving way.
These were not easy questions, and I’m putting them out in part to show the kind of thinking that we have been doing and that needs to continue, in part to invite your own thinking, in part to let you know how wonderful and stimulating this weekend has been even while being also a saddening event because of the horrible crimes that continue to take place in our name and with our tax monies. Many thanks to my many Catholic sisters and brothers who are living the spiritual progressive vision to which we aspire!
Many blessings to you!
Rabbi Michael Lerner
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