Posted by: Harold Knight | 10/29/2015

“. . . doing without what the world calls peace and prosperity . . .” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer)

Yesterday was the annual “Legacy of Literacy” breakfast benefitting the Aberg Center for Literacy in Dallas, TX.

I am humbled and proud (is that possible?) to be teaching a GED preparation class at the Aberg Center as a volunteer. Marcus Borg, in his book The Heart of Christianity, writes about what he calls “thin places”. These he describes as “anywhere our hearts are opened.” When I volunteered, I had no idea I would discover a “thin place.”

My purpose was to “do good,” not to have my heart opened.

I heard of the Aberg Center a couple of years ago when a friend invited me to attend a “show” starring Martha Barnette and Grant Barrett of NPR’s “A Way With Words,” one of my favorite programs on any kind of media. It was a benefit for the Aberg Center, and I ― knowing that I was about to retire ― put it in mind as a place to stay busy and perhaps do some good.

Yesterday’s breakfast was poignant for me because a young woman who had been in my class spoke as the newest Aberg Center high school graduate. She’s on to college in the spring semester ― a Hispanic woman, mother of three, who dropped out of high school when she was 15 to have her first child as she told the breakfast crowd. Mileyvi Medrano de Herrera and her husband are now, ten years later, working together to continue building a life for their children (and themselves).

Mileyvi and other members of my class. Spring semester, 2015. Photo: Harold Knight

Mileyvi and other members of my class. Spring semester, 2015. Photo: Harold Knight

Mileyvi’s talk was a “thin place” for me in the way the Episcopal liturgy used to be (and might still be if I ever went to church).

As an old man (I say that with a sense of wonder and humor, not fear or dismay) who has virtually given up my faith (not as Sam Harris or Richard Dawkins have), I sometimes return in my mind to the year I graduated from college (1967) and Dionne Warwick singing her Academy-Award-winning hit, “What’s it All About, Alfie?” I’m right back to what was then my sophomoric searching for “the meaning of life.”

Now, as an almost-apostate, asking “What’s it all about?” comes as close as I can to any sense of religiosity. Asking the question is itself the answer.

With Milton Munitz,

I am prepared to leave many aspects of traditional theology in mystery. For instance, I am not committed to any particular view of God as creator, or even to the claim that God is a creator. I am most comfortable with asserting that there is a mystery to my existence and a mystery to the existence of the universe. . . . It is within this mystery that I seek insight. (Milton K. Munitz. The Mystery of Existence.)

He goes another step, however, that I am not prepared to take ― explanations of what he does believe in.

One aspect of my gratitude for the “thin places” at Aberg, the gift of interacting with and (possibly) helping the students learn useful and spirit-opening skills, is that it helps me overcome my depression, an uncomfortable theme running through my life.

I misspoke. It does not help me “overcome” depression. It helps give it meaning. I am aware of the danger of this line of thought. I am not looking for justification or martyrdom here, simply for a way to think about the mysterious.

Another theologian (I read too many theologians for an apostate!) whose writing means more to me as a non-believer than it did as a person of faith is Dietrich Bonhoeffer. His interpretation of, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted” (Matthew 5:4), is that

By “mourning” Jesus, of course, means doing without what the world calls peace and prosperity: He means refusing to be in tune with the world or to accommodate oneself to its standards. Such men mourn for the world, for its guilt, its fate and its fortune. While the world keeps holiday they stand aside, and while the world sings, “Gather ye rose- buds while ye may,” they mourn. They see that for all the jollity on board, the ship is beginning to sink (Bonhoeffer, Cost of Discipleship).

I don’t know how any grown-up with any ability to see the world as it is, any ability to think about being part of the “social contract” that keeps us from hunting and eating each other as do the wild animals who descended from the same early life forms from which we descended; how any grown-up who has the ability to keep from destroying anything and anyone around them for their own benefit; how any grown-up with empathy to say, “There but for the grace of God” (or rather but for the totally undeserved accident of my birth in a “developed” nation) can do anything other than mourn

The human-family-wrenching refugee crisis emanating from Syria (and elsewhere).
The unbearable, unspeakable, murderous poverty in much of the world.
The privilege and power of the few that contribute to that poverty.
The destruction of relics of the history of mankind by ISIS.
The racism and xenophobia that informs the social structures of nearly every nation.
The subjugation of American women as a tenet of a religious belief about conception.
The continuing and unabated arming of the world, both nations and individuals.

Do I need to list more reasons to “mourn for the world, for its guilt, its fate and its fortune?”

I am preparing to fly in a couple of days to one of the places of the greatest “mourning” in the world. Intractable mourning. Made worse because it is not necessary. Because we, we Americans, are making possible its continuation.

This will be my third trip to Palestine/Israel. The first time I went, I thought I would “do good,” that I would learn about the decades-long conflagration and do something to help (help what or whom I was not sure).

This time I have no illusions of helping. I have tried for 12 years to “make a difference.” I am not sure I have ever done so or ever will. What is more likely to happen is that I will run up against one of those “thin spots,” a place where, in the suffering and the reality of people I meet as well as those I already count as friends, I will have my “heart opened.”

It is probably not clear how my thinking proceeded from Mileyvi to Palestine.

They are, for me, part of the same process. Making myself vulnerable to the processes of other people, to help if I can, simply to be with them if I cannot. And to rejoice in, but know I am not responsible for changes in the world―in one life or a nation.

If there is a God, I’m pretty sure that’s where I will find God.
I list here four articles that might help someone understand why Palestine/Israel is a place of mourning. I invite you to read. If you think these are one-sided, all you need is to look at Main Stream Media for another point of view.
Ramzy Baroud: “Palestine Remains the Core Struggle in the Middle East.”
October 25, 2015
“Amnesty International: Israeli forces have ‘ripped up the rulebook’”
October 28, 2015
Marc H. Ellis: “Living and dying by Netanyahu’s ‘forever’ sword.”
October 28, 2015
Robert Cohen: “Dear Chief Rabbi, your sermon on Palestinian violence failed tests of moral and communal leadership.”
October 25, 2015

Est Jerusalem. Palestinian home destroyed by the Israeli government, 20088. Photo: Harold Knight.

East Jerusalem. Palestinian home destroyed by the Israeli government, 2008. Photo: Harold Knight.


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