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On violence, memory, God, and Karma

On violence, memory, God, and Karma

Evan Weissman | June 15, 2019


As “spiritual but not religious” becomes more and more prevalent I think our communities are in desperate need of some more Rites of Passage into adulthood. I’ll trash-talk the negative aspects of religion with the best of them but if my bar mitzvah did nothing else, it pushed me to consider what it meant to move from being a boy into a man and how I might show up in the world differently. And some relatives got quite drunk.


There have been so many youth suicides lately and inevitably, understandably, the funerals and memorials for these kids raise them to exalted heights; they were the greatest. I’m not sure that sends the best message. I think we should establish more practices of Living Eulogies. Let’s publicly express our admiration and appreciation for those who are living and may be feeling a bit friendless.


Every year during a course I teach at Colorado College I ask the students if they’ve heard of Columbine and they all say yes. I then ask if they’ve heard of Nickel Mines and no one raises their hand. 20 years later and Columbine is still alive—in lawsuits, books, memorials, debates, crazy admirers, extra security, etc…Nickel Mines razed the school and built a new one and I think we need to look at that example to try and wrestle with some alternative ways of dealing with mass shootings in schools.


There is a Jewish practice of saying, “May their memory be a blessing” when someone dies. I think memory is very different than history and so I don’t think it should only be for those who have died. We’re not always in close contact with those we love and want to be connected to—and so we have their memories to bless us and guide us and comfort us. This morning I showed Ezra how he could close his eyes and picture anyone he wanted, whenever he wanted…and he could feel however it made him feel. He quickly changed the subject and wanted me to just read him a book about a mouse who scares a lion. Fair enough.


The Passover Seder is my favorite holiday and ritual. We attempt to keep alive the memory of slavery and exodus and the struggle to get out of narrow spaces and into a place where we can wrestle with how to change things from where they are, to where they ought to be. It is less about history, which often feels distant and immovable, and more about memory, which has a taste and a smell and can fuel us to act. This year I held friends of mine who are migrants close to my heart. The attacks are brutal but their strength is inspiring and motivating and incredible. As with most movements for justice, almost all of these leaders putting in hard work and talent are women.


I was sad to hear that Lon Robertson died. He’s a leader who should be in the history books but just might not make it there. Lon was a rancher who leads a beautiful coalition of (mostly) conservative Republican ranchers, environmentalists, artists, and peace activists that stopped the greatest purveyor of violence on earth from taking his land, his town, and a segment of the state of Colorado the size of the state of Connecticut. The Piñon Canyon Expansion Opposition Coalition is one of the few instances of people stopping the US Army, and we owe Lon and many others a huge debt. May his memory be a blessing.


Learning about the climate crisis is exhausting and dispiriting. But, I don’t want to be a hospice worker for the planet…Every movement has been told things are impossible to change. Only through hope and hard work and fight does it change. Just because everyone tells us it’s hopeless, don’t believe it—put faith in the hope the way we put faith in planting trees for future generations to have shade and air….it might not work but what has ever been the alternative?


Karma is as real as gravity. I stopped standing up for the Star Spangled Banner in 1997 and wouldn’t you know it that my (almost) 3-year-old son Ezra can’t get enough of that damn song. Most of our conversations these days revolve around Whitney Houston (yes, her perfect version is Ezra’s choice on repeat—he may be an instigator but he’s not a monster). The things a man does for his son’s happiness…


In case you missed it, the Pope was forced to clarify that Lionel Messi is not God. I am certain this did not put the debate to rest. We are lucky to be living at the same time as that little magician with a soccer ball.


Call Me By My True Names

Liberation theologian Gustavo Gutiérrez said “You say you care about the poor? Then tell me, what are their names?”


I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately as I’ve heard so many people proclaim their care and support and protection for those they don’t know. I want to see and speak with clarity, and I want to be compassionate while strong.


When Trump threatens young people in our country, flippantly suggesting he will deport them and their families to advance political purposes—he is a terrorist.


When rabbis and priests wear yarmulkes and collars at rallies for social justice, for public view and public adoration, but are not doing that work everyday— they are prostitutes.


When we publicly demonstrate without a strategy, and without demands, and without the ability to hold power accountable for not meeting those demands—we are re-enactors.


When you say you want the option to use violence as a tactic—name it. What kind of violence?


Thich Nhat Han has a poem “Please call me by my true names” where he embraces his own joy and his pain, his ability to hurt and be hurt, his connection to the world and the invitation for empathy and compassion.


I am the rabbi, I am re-enacting, I am unsure about the way forward, and I, too, am Trump, the terrorist.


What is our Spirit?

Ezra has asked me a few times now, “what is our Spirit?” What kind of question is that to ask your dad?! How the hell am I supposed to know? You’re two years old. Ask me something more appropriate, like, “can I have a cookie?” or “what shape is time?”.


So I’ve tried to answer him. I don’t want to ignore or overwhelm or patronize him. “It’s what connects us all. It is what’s inside you and me and the trees and everything.” Part of me knows I’m failing and part of me realizes that if I’m right, we’re all failing.


Colorado has 49 hydrogen bombs on alert 24 hours a day, 7 days a week? The Minuteman III ICBM’s here are part of the thousands of remaining nuclear bombs in the U.S. arsenal. Each bomb is potentially 20 times as powerful as the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs.


I think this is stealing. Building these things, maintaining them, threatening others with annihilation…these all take money and resources away from those in need in our communities and beyond. You don’t get rid of “isms” by killing “ists”. Militarism is a disease. We just don’t notice it.


In 1943, our country built 3 entire cities, complete with homes for 125,000 people, 12 shopping centers, 9 schools, and 2 churches. It was for the urgent national purpose of supporting a nuclear war industry, and it was entirely secret.


Look what we can do if we have the vision and the desire and we prioritize it!


Can we build a world where it is easier to be good and to love? Can we remove the barriers to being good and reject the artificial scarcity of love?


On the longest night of the year, I think about all the unnecessary deaths we’ve had on the streets. My friends hold a vigil each year at the community columbarium to commemorate the lives of these folks. It is both devastating and beautiful.


Jews don’t have much time for patron saints but I’ve been pretty damn interested recently in Mary the Undoer of Knots. I think we could all use a saint to help us untie our knots, especially when it comes to some of these our community has been pulling tighter and tighter for decades.


I am cheering on everyone who is working to build our hopeful future where it is easier for our spirits to be good and to love.


About the Author

Meet Evan Weissman, a 2019 Roddenberry Fellow. Evan is the founding executive director of Warm Cookies of the Revolution, a Civic Health Club that blends innovative arts and culture with crucial civic issues. Learn more about his work here.