Anne Klaeysen's Blog
In my role as Leader of the New York Society, I am called upon to make public statements about local and world events, either to clarify an ethical position or give my personal opinion. It is important that we stay current and join the conversation. But this summer I have been silent. The violence has been so overwhelming that I felt both paralyzed and too full of feelings to write anything meaningful. And then I reflected upon my day and knew.
Yesterday was New Student Orientation at Columbia University. I staffed the University Chaplain’s table with two colleagues for two hours in the blazing sun, greeting freshmen and their parents from across the country – and not a few from among NYC’s five boroughs. We handed out literature and swag (pens and plastic bracelets decorated with faith logos); we chatted with them about their dreams.
Yesterday was also Michael Brown’s memorial service. He and his parents did not participate in any school’s New Student Orientation, although he, too, had dreams. With his hands in the air, he was shot to death on a street in Ferguson, Missouri and left there for four hours while the police officer who killed him waited for back-up. His parents, who rushed to the scene as soon as they heard the news, were not allowed to go to him. They were not allowed to cradle the body of their beloved son.
Eric Garner had dreams for his children and also will not be the “helicopter parent” that colleges fear: the ones who “hover” over their children, loathe to let them go, even though they know they must. His children will grow up without a father because he was killed on a street on Staten Island. While he gasped, “I can’t breathe,” a police officer killed him with a chokehold.
These men were black; their killers white – police officers, civil servants charged with the responsibility of protecting the lives of people in the communities they serve. Now the men who ended their lives may be charged with homicide.
We hold these individuals responsible, but we must also hold the systems in which they work responsible, as well as the culture in which we live that still values one color skin over another. All of us must take responsibility. But how?
Some people took to the streets; others called press conferences, gave media interviews and wrote opinion pieces. Families, friends and neighbors called for justice and were joined by people across the country and around the world. They sent condolences, wrote letters to politicians, and signed petitions for policy changes. One petition demanded that a Missouri judge recuse himself from hearing the case of Brown’s shooter since his father, a police officer, had been killed by an African- American. So divided are we, so suspicious and untrusting, that we cannot imagine a court officer upholding his sworn duty. The social fabric of our nation, this United States, has again been shredded. How do we salvage it?
I don’t know, but I am a pastor, so I know that we must first stop, breathe and grieve. In the midst of so much violence and hatred, we must embrace the sorrow and weep. We must embrace one another and listen deeply to what is needed. Only then can we act.
Stark is the contrast between the idyllic university town of Oxford, England and the places where many of the speakers at the World Humanist Congress, held there in August, toil on behalf of basic human rights. I stayed at Keble College, an ivy-covered brick complex with the requisite porter’s lodge, chapel, dining hall and secret gardens. Founded in 1870, it is modern compared to other colleges formed as early as the 13th century (although teaching in Oxford began two centuries earlier). Strolling down the cobble-stoned streets and socializing in the time-worn pubs provide the visitor with an almost other-worldly experience. Listening to activists from Bangladesh, Brazil, India, Indonesia and several African countries disturbed this tranquility with an awareness of how dangerous the world can be for those who dare to think for themselves. Their lives, families and homes have been threatened. Some have sought refuge in safer places; others risk everything daily.
The theme of the 2014 Congress was “Freedom of Thought and Expression: Forging a 21st Century Enlightenment.” There was celebration, to be sure, of the tenacity of free thought through the ages, for which Oxford was an appropriate setting. Several esteemed scholars elucidated Humanism’s history and predicted its future. There was entertainment by Humanist choruses from Norway and the UK, as well as Sanderson Jones cracking wise at an early morning Sunday Assembly, which he co-founded with Pippa Evans. Workshops highlighted the progress of Humanist communities around the world. And, as hoped, participants strengthened existing networks and forged new friendships. I was especially pleased to see Nigerian Leo Igwe and Pakistani Gulalai Ismail again; both visited NYSEC earlier this year. The Oxford Declaration on Freedom of Thought and Expression (http://whc2014.org.uk/oxford-declaration/) was passed by delegates on the last day.
What will stay with me, and what I bring home to you, are the words of those people whose commitment to the ideals and values of Humanism – critical thinking and education, mutual respect and compassion, human rights and social justice – put them in the crosshairs of powerful enemies.
Nobel prize-winning Nigerian writer Wole Soyinka accepted his International Humanist of the Year award with these words: “It’s considered virtuous by some to abduct 200 girl pupils from a sanctuary of learning in the name of a religion. . .The lesson of Boko Haram is not for any one nation. It is not for the African continent alone. The whole world should wake up to the fact that the menace is borderless, aggressive and unconscionable.” (Full speech at http://iheu.org/wole-soyinkas-international-humanist-award-acceptance-speech-full-text/)
My young friend Gulalai Ismail (photo below) founded Aware Girls when she was 16 to provide a leadership platform for young women and girls of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in northwest Pakistan. She now has ten years of experience in challenging patriarchy, gender discrimination and religious extremism. Her work promotes peace and pluralism by providing civic education to young people. As she says, “I offer a space where young women can come together and they can speak for their rights. If we can’t speak for ourselves, nothing will change.”
Finally, Leo Igwe (whom I also heard give a presentation to the London Black Atheists at Conway Hall, home of the London Ethical Society, a few days later) has been physically attacked many times for his work on witchcraft issues in Africa. “It is taken to be a dangerous occupation. It is a minefield,” said Leo. “When you are living in this situation, you need allies, you need supporters. You need people to say to you, ‘I love what you’re doing.’”
We must be their allies. We must support the work they do.
One way is to donate to the International Humanist and Ethical Union at http://iheu.org/support/make-a-donation/. Remember: We are the “Ethical” in IHEU’s name, having co-founded this organization in 1952 (http://iheu.org/humanism/the-amsterdam-declaration/). Learn more about its work around the world and consider attending the next World Humanist Congress in 2017 in Sao Paulo, Brazil.
with Gulalai Ismail, founder of Aware Girls, Pakistan
It has been a long time since the heady days of Occupy Wall Street in the fall of 2011, when winner of the 2001 Nobel Prize for Economics Joseph Stiglitz traveled downtown from Columbia University to teach activists in a corner of Zuccotti Park. The following year, he published The Price of Inequality: How Today’s Divided Society Endangers Our Future, in which he wrote: “It’s no use pretending that what has obviously happened has not in fact happened. The upper 1 percent of Americans are now taking in nearly a quarter of the nation’s income every year. In terms of wealth rather than income, the top 1 percent control 40 percent.” And while these privileged few enjoy the best health care, education and other benefits of wealth, they fail to realize that “their fate is bound up with how the other 99 percent live.”
The New York Society participated in Occupy Wall Street (OWS) in several ways: The Board of Trustees endorsed its mission; I was a chaplain on site, and our teens accompanied me to an interfaith service; members rallied both in the park and on the street; and we hosted speakers, working groups and programs. How well I recall telling a member of Ethical Culture Fieldston School’s board that our 2012 Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Remembrance Platform would feature an OWS panel and, upon hearing her response – “What could they possibly have to say?” – picturing founder Felix Adler, who proposed a maximum wage, spinning in his modest grave in Mount Pleasant Cemetery.
As it turns out, they had a great deal to say, and many more people have been talking and writing since then. The “1 percent versus the 99 percent” meme caught on and spread around the world. In 2012, there were 25 percent more academic articles about inequality than in 2011 – and 237 percent more than in 2004. It has become today’s defining issue. Even the school Adler originally named The Workingman’s School, “especially intended to serve the needs of the children of the poor” (The New York Times, November 23, 1890), was featured on the cover of The New York Times Magazine dedicated to inequality (5/4/14). “The Tale of Two Schools” with its photographs of, and quotations by, students from Fieldston and neighboring University Heights High School in the South Bronx refers to exercises in “radical empathy,” not to ways of remedying the gross disparity described by Lisa Greenbaum, English teacher at University Heights: “They walked into Fieldston, and they were just overwhelmed. They couldn’t imagine that this was just minutes from where they lived, and they never even knew about it. One kid ran crying off campus. It made them so disheartened about their own circumstances.”
In addition to Stiglitz’s work, economist Robert Reich released a documentary called “Inequality for All” in 2013; Rolling Stone journalist Matt Taibbi just published The Divide: American Justice in the Age of the Wealth Gap; and Fast Food Forward, started last year in NYC, took its worker strikes on the road and across the country. The latest notable is French economist Thomas Piketty, whose 700-page tome, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, has become an international bestseller. His thesis is that inequality is the inevitable collateral effect of capitalism and that, if governments don’t act to contain it, it will grow until it seriously threatens democracy and economic stability. The “Piketty effect” is well known to academic economists and is finally becoming familiar to the rest of us. Here is the solid evidence and scholarly underpinning for the phenomenon we have been experiencing since the depression of 2008: radical social injustice.
Yes, there is a great deal to say, but now is the time to act. Long gone are the days when Dr. Adler called captains of industry and labor leaders who were members of his congregation and parents in his school into his office and convinced them to join him in building institutions and transforming society to meet the needs of public welfare. Although today we lack his powerful connections, we are nonetheless called upon to act in solidarity with the 99%. In addition to maintaining a homeless shelter and fighting for a living wage, we can also support quality public education by housing pre-kindergarten and after-school programs. Let’s do it! We can and we must take a stand.
There is a story I often tell about Felix Adler at our monthly receptions for newcomers. Because the architecture of our meeting house can seem austere and our vision a little unclear (religion or not religion?), I introduce Ethical Culture through its founder, a young man who wondered what life would be like if we put ethics first – and then did it.
Felix was expected to inherit his father Samuel’s position as head rabbi at Temple Emanu-El, a Reform Jewish synagogue in Manhattan. His family came from Germany in the mid-19th century to join this congregation and help it grow. By all accounts, Felix learned his lessons well from his scholarly father who guided his reading in the family’s enviable library and his compassionate mother whom he accompanied on visits to poor families with baskets of food and clothing. If his school teachers thought that he should study as hard as his brother, who was destined to become a doctor, they also appreciated his help with the younger children. Everyone recognized him as a serious and deep thinker who also enjoyed word play, especially puns.
When it came time to study for the rabbinate, Felix left for Heidelberg and Berlin. Imagine him far from the love and security of his home. Yes, he was fluent in German and well prepared academically, but he had grown up in a privileged American setting. Student life in Germany was wild: no dorms with empathetic RAs and “helicopter” (hovering) parents Skyping every day; students lived on their own and attended lectures, wholly responsible for their education. Felix was exposed to both intellectual heights and social depravity. He was shocked that his esteemed teachers didn’t incorporate literary criticism into biblical study and that his fellow students frequented prostitutes. When it became clear to him that the Torah was ancient mythology, he turned to philosophy for a moral foundation. He attended political rallies and observed labor upheavals, which drew him to sociological studies. Young Adler was engaged in an independent study far from what his parents and congregation had envisioned for him. Legend has it that when his mother received a letter expressing Felix’s enthusiasm for philosopher Emmanuel Kant, she replied that “no good can ever come of studying philosophy” and insisted he return home.
Return he did and, at the age of 23 years, delivered a sermon at Temple Emanu-El called “The Judaism of the Future.” Now it was his turn to shock: Adler didn’t mention God and introduced his concept of Judaism as a universal religion of morality for all humanity. It was his first and last sermon at his father’s synagogue. Soon it became clear that he would not become a rabbi, and members of the congregation helped him gain a teaching position at Cornell University where he became popular with students for his radical religious ideas that included an understanding of labor struggles and power politics. Others, however, attacked him as an atheist, and Cornell declined to accept the grant that paid Adler’s salary, so he returned to New York City. And that is where, in Standard Hall on May 15, 1876, Ethical Culture was founded.
Today Ethical Societies and the Ethical Culture Fieldston School celebrate Founder’s Day in early May. We hark back to young Adler’s founding address and continue to find inspiration there, not least because the conditions about which he spoke still persist and demand our action. “There is a great and crying evil in modern society. It is want of purpose. It is that narrowness of vision which shuts out the wider vistas of the soul. It is the absence of those sublime emotions which, wherever they arise, do not fall to exalt and consecrate existence.”
We still need a religion without the trappings of ritual or creed that unites us all – theists, agnostics and atheist – in ethical social action. “Believe or disbelieve as ye list — we shall at all times respect every honest conviction. But be one with us where there is nothing to divide — in action. Diversity in the creed, unanimity in the deed! This is that practical religion from which none dissents. This is that platform broad enough and solid enough to receive the worshipper and the ‘infidel.’ This is that common ground where we may all grasp hands as brothers, united in mankind’s common cause.”
Today we include women and the LGBTQ community on his platform. As Adler well knew, ethics would continue to progress, embracing new groups of people and empowering them to claim their rights. The Ethical Movement he founded is now part of a larger Humanism that extends globally and touches everyone who puts “deed above creed.” We hear his voice echoing from Standard Hall in 1876:
“The time calls for action. Up, then, and let us do our part faithfully and well. And oh, friends, our children’s children will hold our memories dearer for the work which we begin this hour.”