Passover – A Celebration of Freedom

April 15, 2014

This is Passover, a holiday that comes straight out of the Bible, the Almighty commanding us to tell the story of the Exodus to each new generation as well as reminding ourselves. The Exodus, of course, is a story of freedom from slavery. The Biblical story is about the Hebrew exodus from slavery in Egypt. But we are very explicit about relating that story to the freedom of others.

In truth, whoever our ancestors, some were probably slaves. Some were serfs in Europe. Women and African-Americans have been bought and sold in much of the world. African-Americans and Native Americans have been enslaved in this country. The Haggadah, essentially the prayer-book for Passover, has been repeatedly rewritten in part to take account of new struggles for freedom. As we remind ourselves every year, “Not for ourselves alone do we pray, not for ourselves alone, but for all Your children.”

Sometimes it is also necessary to remind ourselves that freedom is indivisible – we all have a stake in each other’s freedom. The slavery of some makes the freedom of the rest of us less secure. I met my wife in 1966 because it was not safe for her to go to the Tehran bazaar without a male escort. White working men before the Civil War understood that their freedom was undermined by Black slavery – the terms and conditions of their employment undermined by what masters could get from their slaves, even as today the conditions of American workers are undermined by the abuse of workers all over the world, and the conditions of the middle class are affected by the abuse of less fortunate workers.

Freedom is not license and it implies caring about each other, not the freedom to ignore the plight of others.

We all grew up telling each other “It’s a free country.” But many of us don’t stop to figure out what that means. Free of taxes? Impossible; that was never true. Indeed the absence of government would reduce us all to slavery, naked and defenseless against every form of force, fraud, scam and abuse. Free to do anything you want without regard to other people? All of us used to call that idea license and distinguished it from freedom. License is uncivilized, the law of the jungle, that allowed and still allows some to enslave others.

Much of American history is about that fight for freedom and we celebrate it. Americans fought for significant freedoms. We fought for political freedom, the right to govern ourselves, the right to representation in the legislatures, the right to vote, the right to a fair trial and all the essential elements so that we would not convict and imprison the guiltless. We fought for civil freedoms – the right to buy and sell, to testify in courts, and the right to marry. Those freedoms are in our Constitution but it was only a few decades ago, in the context of the Civil Rights Movement, that the U.S. Supreme Court actually started enforcing them – another example of the indivisibility of freedom.

Freedom is the gift we share and it is the gift for which we work together. Jews try to celebrate it with family but we also celebrate it as a multi-cultural holiday. Freedom is indivisible.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, April 15, 2014.


To Fight Brush Fires or the Whole Enchilada

October 22, 2013

Should we fight against the brush fires or tackle the whole enchilada? I’ve often wondered about that. People find it easier to tackle the little pieces. I’ve heard that Napoleon, retreating in Russia, broke the retreat into a series of small objectives to keep up his men’s confidence. But then we know the man in charge had his eyes on the big picture – getting out of Russia before he lost his entire army.

There is no guy in charge of the whole world. Americans like to brag that we’re the greatest. And many of them think we can accomplish anything and, if we don’t, the president’s to blame. I don’t share that misconception. Even in the U.S. no one is really in charge. Politics, democracy, is about conflict and compromise. And no one is in charge.

So how do we deal with environmental problems before it’s too late? Read the rest of this entry »


Reality Check on Iran

July 23, 2013

I recently attended a meeting of former Peace Corps volunteers who had served in Iran. We shared the fundamental perspective that Iran should be an ally, not an enemy, and that the current standoff is the result of government mistakes on both sides.

Iran has a democratic tradition going back to 1906, with an elected legislature or Majlis. It also had a democratically selected Prime Minister, until deposed with the U.S. C.I.A. taking credit. Iranians never forgot–their attachment to democracy is one of the strongest in the Middle East. Read the rest of this entry »


Intransigence – the Auto-immune Disease of Democracy

July 9, 2013

Obviously I’ve been following the news from Egypt like everyone else. You don’t need commentators to tell you that ousting a democratically elected government is undemocratic and unacceptable. But I want to talk about Morsi’s mistakes because they illustrate a major misunderstanding of democracy.  Read the rest of this entry »


The Choice of a Pope

March 19, 2013

I have held back from talking about the choice of a pope. After all, a pope is a decision to be made by and for our Catholic brothers and sisters. And it seems improper for non-Catholics to get into that issue.

Years ago, I wrote a friend, H. Jefferson Powell, at Duke, that I felt I had a stake in his winning his argument from Episcopal theology, in his great book, The Moral Tradition of American Constitutionalism.

Similarly, we all have a stake in the choice of a pope. The pope affects brotherhood and sisterhood across faiths. Friends in both faiths have told us that Bishop Hubbard made a very positive difference in the relation of Catholics and Jews here. His work also reflected a shift in Vatican thinking. I suspect he knew his initiatives would be supported there. Popes matter. Read the rest of this entry »


More on Drones

February 20, 2013

In prior commentaries I have spoken about the moral and constitutional issues in targeting people for assassination, by drones or otherwise. Today I’d like to look at the problem coldly, and try to assess whether and when those moral arguments have consequences on our effort to end terrorism. In particular, what should we make of the Obama Administration’s use of drones abroad to kill those it labels enemies. Plainly al-Qaeda has few scruples; why should we? Should we “fight fire with fire” or “sink to their level” to use two common expressions? Read the rest of this entry »


Capitalism, Religion and Global Warming

August 7, 2012

Global warming is the earth’s response to unrestrained capitalism. Everybody gets to make, buy and use whatever they want without regard to how it affects the sustainability of the environment and everyone in it. Drilling in the Gulf, the Arctic or anywhere, hydrofracking in New York, Pennsylvania or anywhere, turning food like corn into oil that can be burned, all make carbon based fuels that contribute to global warming.

The growing list of minor chores that we once did with cranks, like grinding coffee, requires more power for which more carbon based fuel is burned. Planning buildings without regard to natural cooling requires maximum use of power hungry air conditioners. This is capitalist freedom to do whatever we want. And the earth is fighting back.  Read the rest of this entry »


Sources of American Strength

February 21, 2012

Let’s talk about some basics – the sources of American economic power.

  • We were always an immigrant society, peopled with those who had the drive and courage to leave where they were, cross the ocean and begin again with nothing.
  • Initially we were agricultural. One innovation was small, “republican,” landownership by independent farmers. Their efficiency made everything else possible.
  • We were among the leaders in the banking revolution which simplified and facilitated commerce.
  • The transportation revolution began in England but it had an enormous impact on the American economy because of the sheer size of the country.
  • Our system of democratic schooling  – education for all, rich and poor, boys and girls, immigrants and natives – was revolutionary and made us an international leader.
  • England pioneered the scientific revolution. But America took advantage of the land grant colleges, and with the appreciation for learning that came with both the Christian and Jewish communities that relocated here, America became a major source of invention.
  • Americans led the revolution in manufacturing – inventing and perfecting the assembly line.

Now what? Everything we achieved is out there. Read the rest of this entry »


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