(Sunday Homily) Hurricane Harvey and Its Three Unspeakable Descriptors

Pope-Francis Harvey

As everyone knows, hurricane Harvey struck Houston, the 4th largest city in the United States, last week. Apart from its obvious devastation, initial reports said Harvey had caused at least 12 deaths across an area that is home to more than 6 million people.

What most don’t know is that on the other side of the world, in Bangladesh, India and Nepal people are currently experiencing 100 times the initially reported Houston death toll. There torrential rains have killed more than 1200 people and wreaked havoc in the lives of up to 40 million South Asians living in those countries. One third of Bangladesh is currently under water.

At the same time, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have recently published a warning that the parts of Asia just referenced (as well as Pakistan) will soon become uninhabitable for its 1.5 billion residents because of rising temperatures. Incessant heat waves will soon make it impossible for peasant farmers to work their fields. The predictable result will be famine and unimaginable loss of life.

Despite such climate events and dire warnings, there are three terms Americans will scarcely hear mentioned in media reporting of these disasters. The first two are “climate change” and “profit.” The third is especially relevant to a Sunday homily like this. It is a person’s name. The name is “Pope Francis.” In fact, I’ll wager that this Sunday you’ll not hear him or his encyclical Laudato Si’ (LS) mentioned in connection with Hurricane Harvey even in most Catholic Churches. And that sad fact (despite Pope Francis’ brave efforts) simply underlines the irrelevance to which the church has been reduced.

Begin by considering the silence of our leaders and media about “climate change,” “global warming,” or “climate chaos.” Even during non-stop TV coverage of Harvey, the terms hardly crossed the lips of commentators. That’s because virtually alone in the world, the United States (and its media enablers) stand in aggressive denial of the obvious fact that the “American” economy and way of life remain the major causes of such disasters. (Even the Chinese contribution to climate chaos is largely induced by U.S. factories relocated there.)

In fact, far from admitting its criminal and willful ignorance, the Republican-controlled presidency and congress are moving in the exact opposite direction of that required to address super-hurricanes (like Katrina, Sandy, and now Harvey), as well as torrential flooding, disintegrating icebergs, rising sea levels, and soaring temperatures. Setting itself in opposition to the entire world, our country has withdrawn from the landmark Paris Climate Accord, and is doubling down on the production and use of the dirtiest fuels at human disposal (including coal) .

Additionally, hardly a day goes by without our president threatening nuclear war. As Jonathan Schell pointed out even before most of us were aware of climate change, that event would also have devastating effect on the earth’s atmosphere aggravating the climate syndrome already so well under way.

So you don’t hear much these days about climate chaos and the devastating effects of climate change denial. The reason? That brings me to the second culturally unpronounceable word: “profit.” In fact, as Noam Chomsky points out, that word is so unspeakable that it must now be pronounced and spelled as j-o-b-s. Nevertheless, we all know, the real reason for climate denial isn’t jobs, but capital accumulation. That is, corporations like Rex Tillerson’s Exxon are willing to destroy the planet, rather than respond appropriately to the climate impacts of their products that their own research uncovered decades ago.

Pope Francis has recognized the deception and hypocrisy of it all. And that’s why his name along with climate change and profit, is unmentionable in connection with Harvey. Yet, more than two years ago, Francis wrote an entire encyclical addressing the problem. (Encyclicals are the most solemn form of official teaching a pope can produce.) Still, his dire warnings remain largely ignored even by “devout Catholic leaders” such as Paul Ryan and his Republican cohorts. Even worse, the pope’s words generally go unreferenced by pastors in their Sunday homilies.

Yet the pope’s words are powerfully relevant to Harvey, Sandy, and Katrina – to Bangladesh, India, Nepal, and Pakistan. For instance, in section 161 of Laudato Si’ Francis says,

“Doomsday predictions can no longer be met with irony or disdain. We may well be leaving to coming generations debris, desolation and filth. The pace of consumption, waste, and environmental change has so stretched the planet’s capacity that our contemporary lifestyle, unsustainable as it is, can only precipitate catastrophes such as those which even now periodically occur in different areas of the world. The effects of the present imbalance can only be reduced by our decisive action here and now. We need to reflect on our accountability before those who will have to endure the dire consequences.”

And what are the “here and now” “decisive actions” the pope called for? Chief among them is the necessity for all nations of the world to submit to international bodies with binding legislative powers to protect rainforests, oceans and endangered species, as well as to promote sustainable agriculture (LS 53, 173-175).

That, of course, is exactly what the Exxons of the world fear most. Such submission threatens jobs profits. But realities much more important than jobs profits are at stake here. We’re talking about the survival of human life as we know it.

This is a matter of faith. It is a matter of basic decency and common sense.

In fact, Hurricane Harvey and the other climate disasters I’ve just mentioned remind us of the most dreadful papal observation of all. “God always forgives,” Pope Francis has said. “Human beings sometimes forgive. But nature never forgives.”

Last week’s events in Texas demonstrate that truth. Mother Nature is angry, and She’s coming after us.

Are we listening?

India Afterthoughts III: A Rat as Big as a Cat – Living Inter-generationally in Mysore

rodent of unusual size

“Hello . . . hello . . .” It was my eldest son, Brendan, calling out at 2:20 in the morning. He was sitting up in the bed next to mine, and calling towards the window. Hearing him caused me to sit up as well. Brendan thought someone was in our room. My immediate thought was that a monkey had somehow gotten inside.

Brendan and I were sleeping in the room his mother and I had shared during our time in Mysore. My son had just returned from a year in Afghanistan, where he had served as a diplomat in the U.S. Embassy. He was spending a week with us in India before returning for his next assignment in D.C. Peggy had gone home several days earlier; I was to join her in the States a few days later.

Now Brendan had ignited his iPhone flashlight app and was shining it towards the floor near the entry door to our room.

“God, Dad, it’s a rat!” he exclaimed.

I turned on my flashlight too just in time to see a huge rodent – as big as a medium-sized cat – slinking across the floor in front of our beds. Now he was in the corner near the window.

“What do you think we should do?” Brendan said.

“I don’t know,” I replied.

Gingerly I got up and opened the door leading to the outside patio in front of our room. Just then the rat jumped onto the window sill and slipped out through a hole in the screen. I heard him scurry out across the yard.

I closed all the windows and said, “That’s going to make it hard to go back to sleep, won’t it?”

Brendan agreed. But somehow we fell asleep again — I suppose dreaming of “Rodents of Unusual Size,” which played such a role in “The Princess Bride” which ironically we had just viewed that very night.

In any case, that’s only one of the many astonishing incidents Peggy and I shared with our children in India where all of them spent time with us in a funky apartment that housed our wonderful inter-generational community.

That is, for three of our four months in India we shared space and time with our daughter Maggie, her husband Kerry, and those three yellow-haired children, Eva (5), Oscar (nearly 3), and Orlando (nearly 2). Peggy’s roommate from her college days, Micki Janssen, joined us half-way through and stayed for two months. Our sons, Brendan and Patrick came for the Christmas holidays. During one of his leaves from Afghanistan, Brendan and his girlfriend, Erin, had also spent a week with us in Sri Lanka.

Our house in Mysore’s V.V. Mohala neighborhood was perfect for renewing family ties. It resembled a three-story motel right out of the 1950s. Four separate living spaces (each with its own lockable entrance and kitchen) made up the first floor. Peggy and I occupied one of those rooms. That’s where the incident with the rat occurred.

Oscar slept in another room on that same floor. The idea was for Peggy and me to keep tabs on him during the night. The house’s owner (the ever-present Mr. Dass) made his office in a third room. And then there was an American college professor (whom we rarely saw) who lived in the fourth.

The second floor of the “motel” was a two bedroom apartment with a large kitchen, two bathrooms, a living room, dining room and office. That’s where Maggie, Kerry, and our grandkids lived. Early on, they converted one of the walk-in closets into a “bedroom” for baby Orlando.

Peggy and I ate lunch and dinner in that apartment with the whole family every day. (The two of us had breakfast each morning on our own at the “Barista” Coffee Shop a few blocks away – café lattes and “Breckwich” sandwiches consisting of an omelet with lots of cheese on a white bun. I figure that between us we probably ate more than 100 of those sandwiches while in Mysore. )

Everyone eating together twice a day was terrific. What bonding we did! We had a great cook by the name of Anita. She’d fix us Indian food for lunch. And it was always superb – Indian curries, dhal, chapattis, naan, biryani rice, roti, bitter gourd, yogurt, and other delights. Then we usually had something western for supper – pasta, pizza, quesadillas – that sort of thing. Two other women, Vigia (of whom Oscar was strangely afraid) and her daughter Pavrita helped Anita and did the cleaning and laundry as well.

The “motel” had a third floor too. Micki lived in the apartment up there. The third floor’s terrace spread itself in front of Micki’s room. Kerry and Maggie eventually placed two table and chair sets there. That made it nice for parties and occasional meals when the weather was especially fine – and when the laundry had dried and could be removed for the occasion.

Intergenerational living in those circumstances turned out to be wonderful. Many mornings Eva would wake us up, join us in bed, and insist on playing some game – usually involving Pippi Longstocking or Harry Potter. She’d also want to awaken her brother Oscar who always slept longer than Eva and was (as I said) sleeping next door. So we’d have to dissuade her from doing that.

Though the living arrangements and interactions were not without their challenges, I’m sure none of us will ever be the same after living inter-generationally like that. We learned we could do it and have great fun in the process.

Brendan and I will never forget that rat either. . . .

India Afterthoughts (I)

Mysore Palace - 7pm Sunday

in the airport on my way home from India. My four months here are over. I can hardly believe it.

Just a little while ago my time remaining here seemed endless – in the sense of still having plenty to absorb what life has sent me here to learn.

I ask myself: what was that? What did life teach me in India?

My answer? It taught me about India itself (this “Mahatma” or Great Soul of the world), about my past lives, how to breathe, about meditation, yoga, and the joys and challenges of communal and inter-generational living. Over the next few weeks, I’ll post some thoughts on each of those lessons.

I’ll begin today with some brief impressions of India itself.

Ah, India! I grew to love the place. It’s just beautiful – gorgeous with its deeply green rice paddies, palm trees everywhere, huge mountains, brown rivers, cows standing motionless in the middle of busy intersections, and roadside stands selling coconuts and textiles of every hue and pattern.

I think of where we’ve been. . . . We spent most of our time in Mysore in the south-central part of this most “foreign” of any of the countries I’ve visited. (The city’s main palace is pictured above.)Compared with other Indian cities we’ve seen – Mumbai, Delhi, Bangalore – Mysore was delightfully sleepy and manageable, even though its population is well over a million. Mysore streets are dirty and spotted with cow dung. Unexpected gaps in sidewalk pavement suddenly reveal holes at times a meter deep. But no one seems to mind.

The traffic is absolutely chaotic. It’s dominated by scooters, motorcycles and Vespa rickshaws. Horns blare constantly. As someone said, “It wouldn’t be India if it weren’t noisy.”

But there’s something about the rhythm of life in India that’s most appealing. The pressure we’re used to in the States seems less prevalent, though people still complain about stress. Arrival and appointment times are approximate, not exact. People smile when they talk. They bobble their heads as they consider responses to questions, and always appear reluctant to say “no.” Women doing even the most menial tasks like street-sweeping or ditch-digging wear the pink, yellow, blue and red saris. They all walk with such stately dignity and grace. Everywhere men stand motionless by the sides of roads urinating against walls, trees and into empty space.

We did some traveling too. There were two idyllic weeks at the beach in Sri Lanka. Over the Christmas holidays we also visited the backwaters of Kerala. We saw Agra (and its Taj Mahal), and the holy city of Varanasi on the Ganges.

I’ll tell you about Varanasi next time.

Guest Blog: My Daughter Maggie’s Report on India

Rickshaw

Today marks our 2-week anniversary in India and it feels like our sabbatical experience has really begun in earnest. As expected, India is a radical departure from the elegant Tuscan countryside we so enjoyed for the last two months. But it’s exciting to be here! India is absolutely teeming with life. Kerry and I are already firing on more cylinders. And the kids are thriving–marveling at the cultural kaleidoscope and relishing inter-generational living (with my parents just downstairs).

It’s not perfect, of course. We miss some creature comforts; but we’re hammering out solutions every day. If you’ve checked our blog lately, you know that we don’t love the house we’ve ended up in. Also, our ears are ringing from the constant street noise. This weekend we took a trip out-of-town, and the silence was actually unnerving. Finally, the kids brought lice(!) home after just one week at school, which was appalling. (And of course Kerry and I did not escape unscathed). All five of us did a round of medical shampoo last week, and we’ll do the second round tomorrow to catch the remaining eggs that will have hatched. But Oscar is still itching his scalp and saying he has “ants in his hair,” so the situation is definitely not resolved. The crazy thing is, Indians don’t seem to think lice is a big deal at all; no need to even keep the kids home from school! We’re going to move to braids every day for Eva. And hopefully get some kind of preventative spray shipped to us from home that we can spray on their heads every day before school for the next six months!

Kerry and I started a daily Mysore-style yoga class last week at a shala called Yoga Indea, and it’s everything we hoped for. Our teacher, Pratima, is very strict in an exhilarating way. She scolds us when something is not just right. And she’s constantly telling us to “feel the work.” Kerry is doing great, even though it’s all so foreign to his body. And this is definitely the most serious and frequent yoga I’ve ever done. Most importantly, we’re both moved by the opportunity to engage in this project together, side-by-side. Our class meets each weekday morning from 11:15-12:15. Afterwards, we stop by the coconut stand for some electrolyte-rich coconut water, and then head over to the kids’ school to pick them up. It’s been really lovely so far. And how great that it’s only just beginning!

We are all in near-constant awe as we walk the streets of Mysore. As time passes, I think we’ll stop noticing how “other” this all is. But for now, here’s a little taste of some things that have grabbed our attention as we move about town:
-Children playing on an improvised swing hanging from scaffolding; the swing seat was made of a bound pile of recycled diaper boxes.
-A whole valley full of white sheets and towels drying on lines–stretching over at least a full city block. (In theory, air-drying clothes is kind of romantic. But not on the side of a busy road in a polluted city).
-Our security guard burning (presumably our) trash on the side of the road, not 50 feet from our front gate.
-An incredible funeral procession that started in front of the children’s school and passed right by our house. In it, a dead body, clothed in a loincloth, sat upright, tied to a throne, covered by a canopy of hundreds of yellow marigolds. The throne rested on a litter, carried by four men. A group of mourners encircled the body, wailing and moaning with a somber drumbeat accompaniment. After about 15 minutes, the procession began to move around the neighborhood before heading across town to the burial ground. (Kerry commented that the tradition couldn’t be great for public health).
-I don’t think we’ve seen a single stop sign here. Instead, every vehicle (double or triple) honks at every intersection; this explains a lot of the noise pollution.
-There are so many animals roaming the streets, especially cows. Someone told my mother that cows are Mysore’s “speed bumps.” That’s actually quite lovely, isn’t it?
-Because there are so many animals, it is imperative to walk with your eyes down at all times to navigate the animal dung, which is everywhere. (This even though Mysore is India’s second cleanest city).
-Rickshaws are our main mode of transportation and the children think they’re pretty great. They’re not at all safe, of course. They’re open on both sides and they weave in and out of traffic, tailgate to the extreme and barrel the wrong way down one-way streets without hesitation. They’re designed for two adults to fit very comfortably. And we can technically fit our whole immediate family in one if the boys sit on our laps. Even that seems like a bit of a stretch to us. But our jaws drop regularly when we pass rickshaws literally dripping with people. 4 adults. Even 5 adults. 10 children. Crazy.
-Everyone seems to litter here, without a second thought. It’s pretty mind-blowing, since littering feels unthinkable in the United States.
-Mysore’s world-famous Dasara festival just ended. We mostly avoided the celebratory events because of the crowds. But we attended a purportedly “less-crowded” dress rehearsal of the Torchlight Parade one night. We found ourselves in a shocking crush of people trying to push through a narrow gate into the stadium where the parade would take place. A line would have worked well, but instead it was a stampede. It’s not at all hard to imagine the fatal scene on the bridge in northern India last week. Definitely not a situation we’re hoping to repeat–especially with kids.

Eva turns five next month. It’s a big birthday and we wish she felt more settled socially. She has made a friend at school from Ohio, and she’s happy about that. But she’s generally (and understandably) a little intimidated by the language gap. (As a side-note, recently Oscar refused to ask an Indian waiter for more water. “I don’t speak Spanish!” he insisted). But back to Eva. She really misses the community and sense of belonging she feels at home. She vacillates between saying she wants to go home immediately, (because she misses ALL her friends), and wishing we could stay in India forever (because it’s so exciting and colorful here!) All things tolled, this is not actually a bad mental place for her to be in right now. But if anyone out there feels moved to send a birthday card her way in the next week or so, I know she would really appreciate it. Little connections to home feel extra-important while we’re still getting settled here. Our new address is:

The Lehnerd-Reilly Family
No. 2639/1, II Main, Valmiki Road
V.V. Mohalla
Mysore, Karnataka 570002
India

Thanks so much to everyone who’s keeping us in your thoughts. We’re happy to report that all is well and we’re on our way to creating a full life here. Kerry made a rather profound “sabbatical observation” just the other day: “People without kids don’t understand that ‘doing nothing’ is possibly doing too much.” And so we keep going.

Love,
Maggie, Kerry, Eva, Oscar and Orlando

Why Am I Here in India? (Sunday Homily)

Religion in India

Readings for 28th Sunday in Ordinary Time: 2 KGS 5: 14-17; PS 98: 1-4; 2TM 2”8-13; LK 17: 11-19. http://usccb.org/bible/readings/101313.cfm

My wife and I have been in India now for six weeks. Peggy’s working as a Fulbright researcher at the University of Mysore here in the country’s south. I’m here . . . I’m only now realizing why.

To tell the truth, I had come to India more or less reluctantly. I mean since retirement I had traveled a great deal including six months in Costa Rica, five months in South Africa, and now the prospect of 4 ½ months here in India. So perhaps understandably, I was feeling tired of living out of a suitcase.

I wondered then, why Life, why life’s circumstances had brought me here to what many consider the “Soul of the World” – an ancient culture with deep, deep spiritual roots?

I thought about that for a long time. Then I concluded that the opportunity here is absolutely golden for spiritual growth.

That’s why I’m here then, I concluded. Life is telling me I need to grow and break away from patterns of living and thought that have unconsciously become too comfortable and stifling.

And what resources there are in India for assisting in that project! There are spiritual masters here, teachers of meditation and yoga. (For example, Sunday I have an appointment with a Past Life Review teacher.)

In addition, Indian food (not my favorite) challenges me to adjust my palate. Cows walk the streets. Dress is different as well. Music too seems completely foreign (but delightful), as Peggy and I have discovered in attending a kind of “Indian Woodstock” festival of traditional Indian chanting, drumming, flute and violin playing during the two-week festival of the god Ganesh. And the traffic. . . . I’ve never seen anything as wild. No rules at all that I can see. I doubt if I could learn to drive here.

All of this is forcing me to expand my horizons and break away from what spiritual masters here call “samskaras” – habitual patterns of perceiving, thinking and living.

That’s what spiritual masters do for a living – they challenge old ways of thinking. It’s what the prophet Elisha did in this morning’s first reading, and what Jesus does in today’s gospel selection. Both readings reveal God’s love for those our cultural norms classify as strange and even evil.

Our first reading centralizes the prophet, Elisha, who worked in Samaria for 60 years in the 9th century BCE. That, of course, was a full 100 years or more before Samaritans emerged as Israel’s bête noir.

Nonetheless, it is true that Naaman may have been even more detestable to Elisha’s contemporaries than Samaritans eventually became to the Jews. That’s because Naaman was a captain in the army of the King of Aram who at the very time of the officer’s cure was attacking Elisha’s homeland. Elisha’s cure of Naaman would be like extending free healthcare to a known al-Qaeda “terrorist” today.

In other words, Naaman is a foreigner and an enemy of Elisha’s people. On top of that he’s a leper, which supposedly further marks him as an object of God’s disfavor. Despite all these disqualifications, the greatest prophet in Israel cures him.

The narrative’s point: there is indeed only one God, and that God loves everyone, even our designated enemies. That was a stretch for the people of Elisha’s time. It’s a stretch for us.

Still, the point is picked up in today’s responsorial psalm. Remember the refrain we sang together this morning: “The Lord has revealed to all the nations his saving power.” According to the psalmist, then, God is not tied to one land. God’s saving power is evident in every place on earth. As the psalmist put it, “All the ends of the earth have seen God’s salvation.”

God belongs to everyone. Everyone belongs to God.

By Jesus’ time, nearly 800 years after Naaman’s cure, Israel still wasn’t buying that message. In fact, they had narrowed God’s presence to particular locations within the land of Israel. Orthodox Jews believed God was present on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, and could only be really worshipped in the Temple there. Samaritans, on the other hand, believed that the place to worship Yahweh was on Mt. Gerizim, where they said Abraham had nearly sacrificed his son, Isaac.

In other words, Samaritans embodied a sectarian battle among the descendants of Abraham over where to worship God – was it on the Temple Mount or on Mount Gerizim?

Jesus completely ignores the debate. He cures a Samaritan along with nine other lepers – presumably all Jews.

The story is simple: the lepers approach Jesus. He tells them to “show yourselves to the priests.” It’s not clear what Jesus had in mind. Some say there was a law requiring cured lepers to be certified by the priests. Others say Jesus’ intention was to confront the priests, to assert his identity (as his mentor, John the Baptist had done) as the people’s high priest.

In any case, the lepers leave in search of the priests, and on the way are cured. As we well know, only the Samaritan leper returns to thank Jesus. Why? Was it that the priests had persuaded the others not to return, since they were convinced that Jesus was possessed?

On the other hand, the priests would probably have refused to see the Samaritan, because of their deep prejudice.

So the Samaritan turns out to be the hero of the story, not the priests or those who listen to them. Just like Naaman, the one in the story most open to God was the character most alienated from reigning cultural norms.

And that brings me back to my opening point – to my hopes about India. Recently I was reading an article by an Indian scholar of religion who identified Jesus as an Indian yogi. The author suggested that the reason the priests and the people of Jesus’ time and culture could not understand him was that his approach to life and God was completely alien to them.

It was a mystical philosophy more akin to the Far East – to India – than to Middle Eastern Palestine. Put briefly Jesus’ mystical philosophy can be summarized in the words “Aham Sarvum! Sarvum Aham!” –“I AM ALL. ALL is ME.” In fact, Jesus’ basic approach can be summarized as follows:

1. There is a spark of the divine within every human being.
2. That spark can be realized, i.e. energize every aspect of our lives in the here and now.
3. It is the purpose of life to live from that place of divine presence.
4. Once we do so, we will recognize God’s presence in every human being and in all of creation.

Or as John the Evangelist has Jesus say:

1. “I am in the father, and the father in me.” [John 14.10]
2. “I am in my father, and ye in me, and I in you.” [John 14.20]
3. “I and my Father are One.” [John 10.30]

In other words, the guru (Jesus), the disciple, and God are all One. Separation of God and Her creation is nothing but illusion (MAYA). ALL IS ONE.

All of this confirms for me what I’ve learned from Eknath Easwaran, my Indian teacher of meditation over the last 15 years: at their summit all the world’s Great Religions come together in the mystical vision just articulated.

If all of this is true, what does all of this mean for us today? I think this at least:

• There are many ways to understand God.
• Sectarianism is foreign to the Divine Reality.
• God loves our mortal enemies and performs miracles on their behalf just as God did in the example of Naaman.
• More specifically, God loves al-Qaeda fighters and the ones we call “terrorists” just as much as (S)he does us. Our enemies represent God’s presence and so do we. We should treat them as though this were true.
• God loves those we classify as unclean, unworthy, ungodly, and untouchable.
• More specifically, God loves people with AIDS; God loves the foreigner, the outcast. They represent the presence of God and so do we. And because of our tendency to reject them, they are somehow closer to God than we are.
• It’s good to step outside the reach of our culture’s categories, at least once in a while.

Asian Journal: Maggie, Kerry and our Grandchildren Finally Arrive

Mysore

Our daughter, Maggie, and her family arrived in Mysore yesterday morning. They were exhausted after grueling plane trips (from Tuscany) with their three small children [Eva (almost 5), Oscar (almost 3), and Orlando (1)] minus their au pair who (following her emergency appendectomy) returned to Mexico in the middle of their trip. Maggie and Kerry sorely missed her help on the plane with a crying baby and the predictable needs of the other two.

Poor kids!!

The stories of their ticket, baggage, and ground transportation problems, were horrific. They were all completely spent.

So Peggy and I were not surprised when they showed obvious disappointment at the digs we had found for us here in Mysore.

Since our arrival here a month ago, Peggy and I had looked at over 30 potential dwellings. None of them were satisfactory. Either they were too cramped or unkempt, or they were far from Mysore’s center and the Montessori school we all wanted Eva and Oscar to enter. So we settled for a large dwelling about two blocks distant from the “ABC Montessori School” we all liked very much.

Our dwelling is a family residence that has been cut up into five apartments to such an extent that the ground floor resembles an old-time motel. It’s located on a street that is quite noisy with large vehicles roaring by at all hours.

When Peggy and I first saw it, we were not impressed. Neither was Maggie after we sent her photos of the place. However, after reviewing those thirty other places, the “motel” took on the appearance of the Ritz.

Of course Maggie and Kerry didn’t have the “benefit” of the search that became the focus of our first month in Mysore. So their first impression, I’m convinced, was the same as ours had been a month ago. The disappointment on their faces couldn’t be disguised. Peggy and I shared their chagrin.

However, we’re confident that in time they might see the “Ritz” qualities here. Again, it’s close to our grandchildren’s school. It’s near shops and some nice restaurants we’ve discovered. It’s relatively clean and well-maintained – though overpriced for us “Americans” who, we’re aware, have been given a “special” deal.

Did I mention that less than half a block away is Mysore’s best ice cream parlor? That was enough for the complete contentment of Eva and Oscar. Yesterday (again, the Lehnerd-Reilly’s first day here) I took the two of them to the “Corner House” (the ice cream parlor’s name) twice for double dip cones!

Today will be Eva and Oscar’s first day in school. I look forward to their tales.

Going to the Movies in Bangalore: “Elysium,” Snowden, Manning and Assange

Elysium

“Elysium,” the film starring Matt Damon and Jody Foster showed up in India this past weekend. My wife, Peggy, and I happened to be in Bangalore to celebrate her birthday. So we went to see the film – our first time at the movies since arriving in India about three weeks ago. (We intend to stay here another three months as Peggy’s Fulbright at Mysore University takes its course.)

“Elysium” has been panned by some as convoluted in plot, over-the-top in its acting, and filled with typically Hollywood violence as indestructible and robotic adversaries clash in hackneyed, interminable and highly unlikely fight scenes.

I however found “Elysium” strangely intriguing when viewed from our setting in India and in the context of our government’s furor over information leaks. From that perspective, “Elysium” was evocative of the Bhagavad Gita in pitting its protagonist against overwhelming odds in a fight to the finish for human liberation.

More specifically, “Elysium” played out in comic book fashion the battle of Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning, Julian Assange and other information “criminals” against the overpowering state apparatus of a militarized, out-of-control and venal federal government.

To begin with, take the film’s setting – Los Angeles in 2054. The streets of Bangalore were a good prep for the film. Like L.A. in the film, they are polluted, over-crowded, and dirty. However, unlike the imagined L.A. of the future, Bangalore finds itself going in two directions at once, not simply downhill.

Bangalore is situated somewhere between decay and an undisciplined version of globalized commercialization. It features “branded stores” like The Gap, Nike, KFC, Pizza Hut, and Dominos alongside stalls and shops overflowing with goods of all description. The treatment of workers on this sub-continent (as exemplified in the recent factory collapse in Bangladesh), is not unlike workers take-it-or-leave-it dilemma in the film.

Then consider the film’s plot. It’s about Max, a factory employee (played by Matt Damon) who is injured on the job as he’s exposed to a fatal dose of radiation. With five days to live, he must find his way to “Elysium,” a human-fabricated planet floating above the earth. There the rich live in idyllic conditions, where life-saving medical care is readily available. “Elysium’s” story is about Max’s quest to reach for that star. Damon does so by stealing government secrets.

Meanwhile the government responds with extreme violence. It pursues Max in ways reminiscent of the U.S. pursuit of Snowden, Manning and Assange. Its security apparatus hunts him down relentlessly. He is pursued by an implacable, incredibly powerful mercenary agency. He is threatened by drones. Finally, he sacrifices his life so that the information he divulged might set others free.

All of this happens in an oppressive culture characterized by:

• Dominance of the military-industrial complex that completely subordinates politicians to business moguls.
• A high unemployment rate that makes it a privilege for workers to be exploited in the workplace as opposed to remaining jobless.
• A medical system that provides healthcare only to those who can pay for it.
• Total surveillance of everyone involved.
• Fail-safe border patrol that entirely eliminates refugees by killing those attempting to cross borders illegally.
• A highly brutal police force that acts with robot brutality, absolute lack of compassion, and over-all impunity.
• The use of drones to hunt down and eliminate dissenters.
• Women (personified in the Jodie Foster secretary of defense) who despite finally holding high office prove to be more heartless than their male counterparts.

So in the end, “Elysium” is about the fate of a low-level corporate employee like Edward Snowden. The secrets Max reveals show the Department of Defense violating Elysium’s own constitution that supposedly governs a highly polarized society and keeps the reins of power in the hands of a rich minority. While protecting and empowering the minority, the rules in place deprive the majority of the rights of citizenship.

The disclosure of the planet’s governing secrets not only exposes abuse of power, but ends up dethroning the elite, while enabling ordinary people to claim the rights that belong to them in virtue of their humanity. “Elysium” is about information as the key to revolution.

Very little of this is perceived by movie critics. A movie review in The Indian Times saw “Elysium” as just another Hollywood action flick. Without explanation, it remarked that “conspiracy theorists” might find it interesting, and that the film said something about immigration and health care.

I’m suggesting that “Elysium” says much more than that. It perfectly describes the direction in which our culture is traveling. It represents a story of hope. It’s about the triumph of the working class against overwhelming odds. “Elysium” is about the power of information and the heroism of people like Snowden, Manning, and Assange. As a cautionary tale, the film is a call to support whistle-blowers against our own corrupt “leadership.”

Too bad all that de rigueur Hollywood overlay of violence, chases and predictability obscures “Elysium’s” valuable message.

Asian Journal: First Stop, Tuscany

Panzano

Well, we’re finally off on our five-month-long adventure to India. Peggy and I left last Wednesday (August 28th). Right now we’re in Italy staying in a Tuscan villa in Panzano in Chianti. It’s hard to believe that people actually live in such bucolic beauty surrounded by vineyards, rolling hills and castle-like structures like the one we’re luxuriating in at the moment.

I won’t bore you with the details of our journey here – cancelled flights, lost luggage, racing through airports, schlepping excessive baggage through the streets of Rome, lugging it onto a train between Rome and Florence, mistaking someone else’s bag for my own and carrying it off the train, getting tongue-tied in Italian and having it all come out Spanish. You can imagine the drill.

The reason for our trip? Peggy has won her second Fulbright Award – this time to Mysore, India. (Her last Fulbright in 1997-98 brought all of us to Zimbabwe, where Peggy taught at the University of Harare.) We’re all so proud of her. She’s enriched all of our lives immeasurably by the brilliance and hard work that have brought us to such exotic places.

This time Peggy’s grant will have her teaching at the university in Mysore. But that’s not the good part. Whereas in Zimbabwe, it was Peggy, I and our two boys Brendan and Patrick staying in Harare, this time we’ll be with our daughter, Maggie, her husband, Kerry, and their three children, Eva (4), Oscar (2), and Orlando (1). That’s the group that’s so enjoying our stay in Tuscany right now.

And, yes, our son, Brendan and his girlfriend, Erin, were with us as well. They stayed here for a week and left last evening. Brendan’s on leave from his work at the U.S. Embassy in Afghanistan. He’ll be back at his desk there on Wednesday. His tour in Afghanistan will end on December 29th. We’re all holding our breath and counting the days.

Maggie and her family are here because Kerry has taken a sabbatical from his job with a hedge fund. What an opportunity for them and their children! While in India, the kids will be in Montessori School just as they were back home in Westport, CT. Who knows what adventures await all of us in India?

My own adventure, I hope, will involve deepening my practice of meditation. With everyone’s blessing my plan was to do a ten-day retreat centralizing the Vipassana method of meditation. That would have begun on September 11th, and involved ten hours of meditation each day. Just this morning however, I received word that my application has been refused because of oversubscription. I’m now searching for an alternative.

In any case, if all goes well with the shorter experience, I’ll do a thirty-day retreat later on. We’ll see how things develop.

I’ll be writing regularly about our experiences as the adventure unfolds.

Critical Thinking: Where I’m Coming From

[This is the fifth blog entry in a series on critical thinking which lays out ten guidelines for critical thought. My previous entries addressed the first rule of critical thought, “Think Systemically.” That rule holds that we can’t really remove our culture’s blinders unless (without prejudice) we’re clear about the meaning of the key systemic terms: capitalism, Marxism, socialism, communism, mixed economy, and fascism. Today’s blog post begins explaining my second rule for critical thought, “Expect Challenge: Questioning the ‘Ruling Group Mind’” I open the topic with an autobiographical explanation of why I approach critical thought the way I do.]

Let me tell you where I’m coming from when it comes to critical thinking.

I am a field researcher whose travels have been inspired by concerns about Peace and Justice Studies – a program which I helped found and direct at Berea College in Kentucky. My research “digs” began in Rome where many years ago I spent half a decade doing graduate work, and where I first encountered Third World colleagues who raised deep questions about my own perceptions of reality.

Subsequently, my pursuit of intellectual archeology took me all over Europe – most notably to Soviet Poland – and then to Brazil, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Zimbabwe, India, Palestine-Israel, and Cuba. Over the years, I’ve taught as well in a Latin American Studies Program in Costa Rica, where I’ve also worked with a think tank, the Ecumenical Research Institute (DEI), in San Jose.

In all those places I’ve found that developing world thinkers are far ahead of would-be progressives in the United States. Third World scholars know all about colonialism, neo-colonialism, the CIA and its coups, as well as its support of dictators and right-wing counter revolutions around the world.

In the Third World, university students also know about the IMF and its disastrous Structural Adjustment Policies – terms which often raise nothing more than quizzical looks from U.S. audiences. So there’s no need in most Third World settings to argue about the pros and cons of corporate globalization and its effects on the world’s majority. For them the argument was long ago settled.

None of that is true in the United States. Here higher education largely ignores the Third World, where most people live. Most college classes overlook its rich traditions, indigenous scholarship, and progressive thinking. (I even once had a well-meaning colleague respond to similar observations on my part by admitting, “I didn’t know there were any Third World scholars.”) In the United States, the so-called “developing world” is seen as a center of self-induced misery, population problems, food-shortages, and inexplicable revolutions and genocides. Alternatively, the Third World is seen as the undeserving recipient of largesse on the part of the United States understood as the Santa Claus of the world

In the light of history and political realism, I’ve concluded that clearing up such misunderstandings should be Job #1 for post-secondary educators concerned with critical thinking. Doing so entails questioning the unquestionable and broadening students’ horizons to embrace what most thinkers in the Third World recognize as simply given.

To begin with, critical thinking must question the “of course” convictions that belong to American culture – to any culture. As noted earlier, Plato referred to such unquestioned beliefs with the Greek word, doxa. Its power is conveyed by his familiar “Allegory of the Cave.” There the human condition is portrayed in terms of prisoners chained in a cavern where their only experience of reality (including themselves) is conveyed by shadows produced by their manipulative captors.

Plato’s allegory finds its counterpart in American culture, including the prevailing system of education. Typically what happens in the classroom predisposes students to accept what John McMurtry of the University of Guelph (in Canada) calls “Ruling Group Mind” which is largely set by the parameters of generally admissible political opinion. Within such confines, the United States is seen as the best country in the world. Its overriding concern is with democracy, peace, justice and human rights. Its wars are fought in the interests of peace. God is on its side. “Of course!” we all agree.

Such naiveté is revealed in the second episode of the HBO series, “Newsroom.” Its highlight had lead actor, Jeff Daniels, delivering a speech about our country that has been viewed widely on the web. As a news anchorman of the stature and credibility of Walter Cronkite, Daniels’ character is badgered into answering a question posed by a bright American college student: “What makes America the greatest country in the world?” Here’s how he answered.

Daniels’ answer captures the realism of what I consider a major goal of critical thinking.

(Next week: Unveiling the uniquely narrow U.S. spectrum of debate)