A Friendly Letter (Chuck Fager)

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Chuck Fager -- Writer, Editor
Updated: 7 hours 8 min ago

Slavery, The Bible, Southern Baptists & Irony

Wed, 06/13/2018 - 7:53am

Double Irony Time:
The Southern Baptist Convention just adopted a resolution condemning the view that the Bible supports slavery, which was the main premise on which the SBC was founded back in 1845. To back up this new view, it cites Bible verses used by 18th Century abolitionists to condemn slavery, which the early SBC long & steadfastly denounced as heretical, subversive, etc. That’s Irony #1.

Irony #2 is that the abolitionists were wrong & the early SBCers were correct: the Bible DOES support slavery, in numerous texts; and Jesus, who spoke of slaves often, never said a negative word about the practice.
This is important (for those who give a hoot) because the abolitionists then had to break with the hoary notion about biblical “inerrancy,” that if something was in & approved by the Bible writers, it HAD to be okay. This break helped force open the door to non-literalist Bible study,  which, tho still contested in many Baptist & other conservative churches, was a pivotal, positive change:

So YES, the Bible approves slavery, like the early SBC said—and the Bible was WRONG to do so, and the abolitionists were RIGHT when they began to say so.

The Bible can be both wrong & right.

Maybe the SBC will get around to admitting THAT one of these years: not holding my breath.

Excerpts from the resolution:

“Resolution 4 – On Renouncing The Doctrine Of The “Curse Of Ham” as A Justification For Racism
“WHEREAS, Many churches in the Southern Baptist Convention once openly endorsed the false teaching of the so-called “curse of Ham” narrative which errantly construed Genesis 9:25–27 to say that God ordained the descendants of Ham to be marked with dark skin and be relegated to a subordinated status based on race; and

WHEREAS, This doctrine has been used to enslave and continues to be used by white supremacists as a cloak to invoke God’s holy name in unholy acts of demeaning, dishonoring, and dehumanizing certain people who bear His image; and

WHEREAS, The residue of this doctrine remains today and continues to distort the witness of the church and presents a stumbling block to the gospel we preach; and

WHEREAS, This argument for justifying racist ideologies contradicts the rest of Scripture, especially those passages that teach the image of God in every person regardless of gender or ethnicity (Genesis 1:26–27; Acts 17:26), the unity of people purchased by the blood of Christ (Ephesians 2:11–22), and the certainty that Jesus’ bride is a multi-ethnic people (Revelation 7:9); and . . .

RESOLVED, That the messengers to the Southern Baptist Convention meeting in Dallas, Texas, June 12–13, 2018, maintain and renew our public renunciation of racism in all its forms, including our disavowal of the “curse of Ham” doctrine and any other attempt to distort or misappropriate the Bible to justify this evil; and be it further

RESOLVED, That we not be satisfied in our hearts with embracing any doctrinal belief that contradicts human dignity expressed in the creation account and beg the Almighty to purge all remaining dross of this false teaching from our hearts to the glory of God; and be it further

RESOLVED, That we remain vigilant to bring about the healing and restoration of individuals affected by this sort of doctrine, not allowing any future version of this wicked teaching to creep into our hearts or our pulpits (Matthew 7:15; 2 Peter 2:1); and be it further

RESOLVED, That we renew our commitment to proclaim boldly the gospel of Jesus Christ to people from every tribe, tongue, and nation regardless of skin color or genealogical descent (Matthew 28:18–20; Acts 1:8); and be it further

Or does it??

RESOLVED, That we encourage Southern Baptists at every level to withdraw fellowship from churches that insist on excluding from fellowship anyone based on race or ethnicity; and be it further

RESOLVED, That we renew our commitment to preach and teach the full equality, dignity, and worth of all people from the Scriptures as it would be appropriate to do so; and be it finally

RESOLVED, That we renew our commitment to cultivate diligently heartfelt love for people of all tribes, ethnicities, and peoples for the good of the church and the glory of Jesus among the nations (Ephesians 4:3–6).”

Still there, in the Bible . . .

PS: Did you catch that the SBC resolution affirmed (I’m sure inadvertently) LGBTQ folks? Absolutely. Here it is again:

RESOLVED, That we renew our commitment to preach and teach the full equality, dignity, and worth of all people from the Scriptures as it would be appropriate to do so . . . .

As we say ’round here :”ALL means ALL, y’all”!

It’s a free Bonus irony.

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Categories: Blogs

Did I just See The Future? If so, It’s Pharma-Or Die

Thu, 06/07/2018 - 1:11pm

Okay, I’m sitting on the waiting bench at the big box pharmacy. There’s a guy at the counter: lean, middle-aged, in a white tee shirt, looks like he works hard. He’s waiting too, seems jumpy.

A pharmacy clerk comes in view, stepping from behind the long rack where dozens of plastic bags holding filled prescriptions are hanging. She says something to the guy, and all I catch is “Five seventy five.”

The guy steps back.

“What?” he says, and he’s angry. “I’m not paying that.” He makes a fist, but doesn’t raise it.  “I’ll just die.”

I glance back at the clerk. Did she mean “Five dollars and 75 cents” per pill? Or was it “Five hundred and seventy five dollars per dose”? Like for an Epi-pen?

She looks unhappy, but more resigned than intimidated, as if she’s heard this before. Mumbles about the guy could talk to his doctor, maybe get it changed to something lower-priced. She has a plastic card in her hand, extending it toward him.

He snatches the card. “I’ll just die,” he says again, in almost a shout, wheels and strides away.

The clerk pauses for a beat, then speaks to a well-dressed woman who stepped in front before I could stand up from the waiting bench.

I shrug it off, lean back, figuring this is a time for feeling grateful. I’ve got Medicare Part D drug coverage; premiums keep going up, but it lowers the counter price a bunch. Besides, if I had to, I can skip these pills; they’re for helping old guys pee. Doing without for awhile wouldn’t kill me.  I’m lucky.

And it’s my turn. Name, date of birth? The clerk’s fingers click as I repeat them. I’m asked these so often nowadays I figure it’s for more than ID, must also be a dementia screener: have I forgotten one or the other since last time? I don’t like that thought.

The clerk looks up. “Insurance won’t pay for this until the 21st,” she says. (It’s the 7th.)

“Really? But I’ve only got three pills left.”

She shrugs. Heard this before too. “Well, you could pay the cash price now, if you want.”

“How much would that be?”

She needs to consult the screen in the back. More clicks. She says: “It would be more than a hundred dollars.”

And it’s a generic pill. “Remind me what the insured price would be?”

Peers down again. A few taps. “It won’t tell me that til the 21st.” She isn’t looking up.

I Pause. I don’t make a fist. I don’t shout.

But I say, “I think I’ll wait til the 21st,” and start to walk away, then glance back and add, “I’m not gonna die,” over my shoulder.

And I won’t; not from that at any rate. So I still have plenty to be grateful about.

But the feeling isn’t coming up so easy now.

True story; today.



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Categories: Blogs

The Talk They Did NOT Hear at Friends Central School . . .

Tue, 05/29/2018 - 11:15am

On May 25, Sa’ed Atshan was chosen by the Swarthmore College Class of 2018 to speak at their “Last Collection,” an opening ceremony of their Commencement exercises.

Here are some excerpts from his talk. (A full length audio version, 26 minutes, is here. A transcript of the talk is here. ) I’m posting them as a sample of Atshan as a speaker, and as a man sharing his identity and evolution with younger peers. I believe much of this would have been in the talk he was planning for Friends Central last year.

But this was an experience denied to the students at Friends Central  School. To prevent him from speaking there, two teachers at Friends Central were fired, and a high administrative official left.  This shameful incident is now the subject of a federal lawsuit. (More on that lawsuit and its background here.) 

Atshan’s Swarthmore talk was intriguing to me for several reasons, but one was a question I’m still seeking the answer to: 

What is it about this talk, and about this person, that was worth destroying the jobs of three loyal faculty at Friends Central School to stop him from giving it on their campus?

Many readers will know that the Friends Central administration has refused comment on this matter.  So we’re on our own to sort it out. This talk is not a final answer; but is worth reading and pondering as the seeking continues. 

Sa’ed Atshan, Swarthmore College Peace & Conflict Studies Assistant Professor.

Sa’ed Atshan: Friends, thank you for selecting me and providing this opportunity to address you. I am deeply honored.

Four years ago, you sat in this very place for the First Collection. The candles that each of you lit then, and that you are lighting tonight, represent the Quaker notion that the Light of the Divine lives in every human being. I love that Swarthmore welcomes its students with this tradition grounded in egalitarianism. For many Quakers, the understanding of Light is connected to the Christian underpinnings of the Religious Society of Friends. And yet, for other Friends, who consider themselves non-theists, the Quaker conception of Light is not necessarily a reflection of God, but rather the transcendent power of seeking truth, and of doing so in community.

And so we are here for your Final Collection. In this setting, we celebrate a milestone in your pursuit of the light of knowledge. This liminal space provides time for reflection, for you to look back and forth at the same time, in anticipation of the next transition that awaits you.

As a Quaker myself, I believe that the light you carry within will continue to radiate, connecting with others for the rest of your lives. I felt that Light often as a student here and now feel it every day as a member of the faculty. . . .

While growing up, I was incredibly fortunate to have gone to the Ramallah Friends School [RFS], established by Quakers in Palestine in the 1800s. The school helped save my life. With political violence seemingly everywhere around me, the campus was a beautiful oasis.

I found solace sitting in Quaker silence among my peers, the teachers, and the staff in the school’s chapel. With the cacophony of bombings, gunfire, Apache helicopters, missiles, bulldozers, funeral processions, and demonstrations all around us, our collective silence and reflection enabled me to feel what Quakers refer to as Spirit. Wherever I go, it is from the depths of silence with others that the presence of Spirit is most palpable.

Ramallah Friends was my refuge not only from living under Israeli military occupation but also from the heightened masculinity in my society. As a boy who was not very macho, I would have been bullied at other schools, but there, in a Quaker setting, I was embraced. I would kick the ball to the opposing team during soccer so they would leave me alone, and everyone would laugh alongside me with love and support. I would place last in track and meet competitions, and yet I received thunderous applause and cheers from my peers as I crossed the finish line. The person who placed first would receive much less attention and then stand there at the end quite dumbfounded. . . .

[At Swarthmore] we proceed along the trajectory established by the Quakers who founded this institution. Among them were abolitionists and women’s rights activists. One of our founders, Lucretia Mott, once said, “I long for the day my sisters will rise, and occupy the sphere to which they are called by their high nature and destiny.” Were she here today Mott would be delighted to see Swarthmore led by President Valerie Smith and incoming Provost Sarah Willie-LeBreton.

Mott would also be pleased to learn that what was Swarthmore’s stop on the Underground Railroad is now the foundation of our Black Cultural Center. The BCC was purchased from the Robinson family who were Quaker abolitionists. In their basement, the Robinsons sheltered slaves on their way toward freedom. Today, the BCC community, through its vibrancy, and under the leadership of Dean Dion Lewis, honors the spirits of those former slaves. . . .

Swarthmore was generous to me as I explored my interests throughout my undergraduate years, and for this I am thankful. The Lang Opportunity Scholarship funded my work as an Arabic translator and interpreter for the American Civil Liberties Union in their lawsuit on behalf of Iraqi torture victims held in U.S. custody in the infamous Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. . . .

In 1888, Swarthmore was the first institution in the nation to offer a peace studies course, and so this year we celebrate 130 years. It is a privilege for me to teach in such a historic program. In recent years, we have experienced rapid growth, with about 10 percent of this year’s sophomore class declaring majors and minors in peace and conflict studies. And my position is the first tenure-track hire solely devoted to peace studies in the history of the College.

One of the most significant ways that I found myself at Swarthmore was by accepting my gay identity. I am grateful to Swat for dragging me out of the closet years ago, which clinched its second home status for me. The queer folks among you can attest to the fact that, for many of us, you can run, but you cannot hide here; inevitably someone or something will catalyze the coming out process. . . .

I know that the weight of the world can feel heavy. Some of you are still finding your voices and grounding. That. Is. Okay. How do we sustain our spirits at each step along the way? Self-care and self-compassion are essential.

Please know that we need you for the long haul. Give yourself permission to not always be cerebral. Believe it or not, even your professors indulge in the occasional—or perhaps more than occasional—temptations of junk food, Netflix binges, and dance parties. We, too, take walks in the Crum, marvel at blooming flowers in the Rose Garden, and people watch in the Science Center Café. As Audre Lorde once said, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”

You will build your own families over time, and in your own ways, and each of those paths is legitimate. It is important to find home in our own bodies and in our own skins, starting with our names. The names we inhabit parallel the bodies we inhabit. Love your name, own your name, deepen your relationship with your name, whether it’s one you received or the one you chose, with its apostrophes, hyphens, accents, unique spellings, and beautiful pronunciation. All of our names form the recognition of our collective humanity. . . .


Earlier posts on the Friends Central School controversy are:

 here,  here,  here , here & here.


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Categories: Blogs

“Quaker Education”: A Rare Peek Behind the Curtain

Fri, 05/25/2018 - 4:50pm

A Long Read for a Holiday Weekend

Those who are still curious about the notorious (in many Quaker circles) case of two teachers at the Friends Central School in Philadelphia (described in earlier posts here,  here,  here & here), who were fired after inviting a Palestinian scholar to speak there, now have a chance to lift the curtain (at least somewhat) on it.

Plaintiffs’ attorney, Mark Schwartz.

Although the teachers, Ariel Eure and Layla Helwa, were fired a year ago, the case popped up again in local media earlier this month after the two filed a federal lawsuit on May 7. They charged the school’s head and other authorities with six counts of discrimination, retaliation and defamation, and demanded hefty damages.

The lawsuit filing also described the initial incident that led to their suspension and then firing, with details well beyond what has appeared in earlier media reports. 

Besides the charges  of discrimination and defamation, the filing also raises questions about how actual governance in a “Quaker” school can vary from stated values; and how actual educational practice can clash with stated pedagogical values and policies.

Such a lifting of the curtain, while admittedly partial, is rare. And the teachers’ attorney, Mark Schwartz, is an articulate and aggressive advocate. (He’s also had two sons graduate from FCS, and could be characterized as a highly ticked off parent.)

Most civil lawsuits are either settled without trial or thrown out. Of those that are settled, a great many include nondisclosure agreements, forbidding the parties from talking about the outcome.

So to get much information about such lawsuits beyond the skimpy data included in most press accounts, a curious reader had best turn to original documents. 

Of course, court filings can quickly become voluminous, with stacks of depositions, reams of barely relevant paperwork from discovery, and so forth. Besides the time involved to read and assess them, there are often charges to get copies.

This post offers an alternative; extensive excerpts from the original lawsuit filing. The suit was filed in the federal  court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. The filing can be read in full (sixty-plus pages) at a website connected to it. (Here’s the link: be advised it requires opening an account  & a trial subscription.)

A second advice: keep in mind this filing presents the views and allegations by one side in this dispute. I’m interested in hearing both sides, so I submitted the excerpts with a statement of my intentions to the Defendants, with a request for comment, by a deadline today. The only response from FCS was a referral  to their attorney, David Fryman, who is a partner in a large firm and specializes in employment cases; he did not respond either. And I’m not going to wait.

The Defendants’ silence is not surprising. That is, after all, their goal; if they settle, silence is what they will be buying. But from the information here, partisan though it may be, one can still learn much, and make more informed judgments.

NOTE: Some Commentary will be included here, but it will be marked as such and in bold red. All other text is directly from the lawsuit filing. (And yes, the paragraphs in the filing are numbered, and I skipped some.)

1. Schools are supposed to beacons of tolerance for the free expression of competing ideas, such that students can grow. In this case however, the absolute tragedy is that a school which professes to operate according to the fundamental Quaker principles of tolerance has proven to [be] intolerant where the administration and Board maintain an illegal atmosphere depriving two teachers of their civil rights.

What is more the administration and Board have scapegoated Plaintiffs for what was caused as a result of their own inconsistent and intolerant practices when it came to the school’s invitation and then dis-invitation of Swarthmore College professor of Peace and Conflict Studies, Sa’ ed Atshan, Ph.D., himself a devout Quaker. Defendants then deliberately proceeded to defame them and harm their reputations.


Ariel Christina Eure Layla Halwa

2. In this action, Plaintiffs Ariel Christina Eure and Layla Helwa were wrongfully suspended and then discharged from their jobs as upper school teachers at the Friends’ Central School Corp. (“FCS”). They seek to recover damages under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. §2000e, (“Title VII”), the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act, P.S. Sections 951 et seq, and invoke other Pennsylvania legal protections providing relief for the common law torts of “negligent supervision”, ” retaliation” as a result of their invoking their rights, as well as the torts of “defamation”  and having been placed in a “false light” by FCS School Head Craig Sellers (“Sellers”) and Board of Trustees Clerk (head) Phillip Scott and other presently unnamed Board Members (the “John and Jane Does”. This Complaint also possesses a claim against the school for “negligent supervention and retention” of Defendant Sellers.

These claims are a direct as a result of Defendants’ unlawful employment practices, consisting of the maintenance of an illegal discriminatory working environment and discrimination against Plaintiffs due to their race, color, sex and religion. This discrimination extended to the terms and conditions of their employment, including job conditions, benefits and job advancement, ultimately resulting in their firing. Furthermore, Plaintiffs have been retaliated against, as a result of their filing charges with the EEOC and their advocacy for equal treatment of protected categories under applicable law, by first being suspended and ultimately being fired for that advocacy, contrary to Defendants false and pretextual assertions of being an educational institution adhering to Quaker values.

To date, Plaintiffs have never been given a clear or consistent explanation regarding the reasons for their suspension and firing. The real reason was to deflect from the misdeeds of Defendants. This was all done by Defendants FCS and Sellers in deliberate contrast to the school’s professed values and its treatment of other employees. Plaintiffs seek declaratory and injunctive relief, as well as back pay, front pay, compensatory damages and punitive damages where appropriate together with attorneys’ fees, and the costs and expenses of this suit to redress the effects of FCS’s pervasive discriminatory employment policies, practices and procedures.

13. FCS’ website contains that following description of “Our Philosophy,” upon which Plaintiffs have relied:

Since its establishment in 1845 by the Religious Society of Friends, Friends’ Central School, a coeducational, college -preparatory day school for students in nursery through grade 12 has been guided by the Quaker testimonies of simplicity , peace, integrity, community, equality, and stewardship. Underlying all facets of School life is the belief that “there is that of God in everyone.” . . .

COMMENT: While the next section is neither a legally binding statement, nor even a formal FCS “policy,” it is perhaps the most damning affirmation in all the texts associated with this case. Few actions could contradict this FCS “philosophy” more fundamentally and completely than what happened in this case. It demonstrates the very opposite of  encouragement for “intellectual courage,” “critical thinking” and “respect” for “diversity” of thought. For shame, for shame.

Friends’ Central offers rigorous and varied educational experiences in academics, the arts, and athletics, helping our students realize their potential and achieve on the highest level possible. We encourage trial and error, critical thinking and questioning, and intellectual courage in all areas of our curriculum. . . .

We intentionally seek a wide spectrum of diversity in our School community. We respect unreservedly that diversity and strive to enhance and support it. Diversity influences how we teach, learn, and communicate. It enriches the community and furthers understanding that each human life is intrinsically valuable and interrelated, one with another. . . .

16. Prior to their suspensions, Plaintiffs received only positive feedback about their job performance. They were never disciplined. For example, Plaintiff Eure’ s letter contract with FCS for 2016/2017 was signed by Defendant Sellers with his annotation “You bring so much Light to FCS in so many dimensions, Ariel. Thank you for all you do. I look forward to another great year! Craig”.

Defendant Craig Sellers, Head of School, FCS

A revised contract contained the annotation “Thank you, Ariel, for all you do. Onward to exciting chapters ahead. Craig. . . .” Similarly, Defendant Sellers wrote on Plaintiff Helwa’ s contract: “Thank you for all that you do, Layla, to bring such caring warmth and light to our school. You are wonderful!”

17. On May 4, 2016, three students asked to meet with Plaintiffs about a “potential equal rights club.” What came to be known as “Peace and Equality for Palestine” was started by a Jewish student and two non-Jewish students, with Plaintiffs subsequently assuming the role of advisors to this club. Thanks primarily to Defendant Sellers, Plaintiffs experienced anything but an “exciting” chapter, instead being subjected to repeated instances of intolerance and outright discrimination from defendants who maintained an illegal working environment antithetical to the Quaker principles and contrary to applicable civil rights laws, all of which has damaged them and promises to continue to do so for the rest of their personal and professional careers. In pursuing new jobs Plaintiffs continually have to explain what she should not have to explain.

18. From the club’ s inception, what should have been viewed as a promising opportunity for dialogue, instead brought Defendants’ hate and intolerance to the surface. The Jewish student founder was called a “self-hating Jew” by other students. A Muslim member was called a “terrorist”. Those who promoted hatred were neither investigated nor disciplined by FCS. Instead, those who promoted tolerance were suspended and ultimately fired.

19. The club was continually hindered by Defendant Sellers and his administration, frustrating the club’ s very existence. A “Mission Statement” for the club was edited and then approved by Upper School Principal Art Hall who insisted that the phrases “occupation” and “culture of silence” be removed. The Mission Statement was posted and then taken down. Not only did the administration refuse to allow the club to participate in a student club fair, it then subjected it to preconditions that other clubs did not have to meet. It had to be referred to as an “unofficial club” that could not advertise or meet publicly. At one point Mr. Hall subsequently came to a meeting to apologize to club leaders for all of the obstruction. Although he promised that an apology would be forthcoming, an apology never came. Eventually a precondition was set and relayed by Mr. Hall that if the club wished to become official, it would need a speaker.

Arthur Hall, former Principal, FCS Upper School.

20. Given Plaintiff Helwa’s time spent at Swarthmore College, a fellow classmate recommended Swarthmore College Assistant Professor of Peace and Conflict Studies Sa’ ed Atshan, Ph.D. as a possible club speaker. Plaintiff Layla Helwa then proposed to the FCS administration that the speaker be Professor Atshan himself an active Quaker. He is a product of Quaker education at Ramallah Friends School, Westtown School, and Swarthmore College, before securing an MA, MPP and PhD at Harvard. Known as a moderate who advocates discussion, as opposed to armed conflict, Professor Atshan has been and remains a desired speaker at major educational institutions in the U.S. and abroad. Club leaders were consulted by Plaintiffs and they agreed that Swarthmore Professor Sa’ed Atshan would be an excellent choice. Speaking for the administration, Upper School Head Hall commended the choice as well, allowing Plaintiff Ariel Eure to publicize the speaker in the morning announcement.

COMMENT: While Arthur Hall is not a party to the lawsuit, his role here and subsequently suggests a significant subplot in this story. He is recorded as having made favorable comments about the new club, having apologized informally for the obstruction it encountered, and having heartily approved of the invitation to Sa’ed Atshan. Given the uproar over the invitation, were these actions going to go unnoticed?

21. The FCS administration not only approved the selection of Professor Atshan but approved the processing of a $400 honorarium for him. Upper School Principal Art Hall further commented that it would not be possible to find anyone more acceptable. He approved Plaintiff Eure’s request for an announcement for publication.

22. By an email of December 7, 2016, Professor Atshan was notified by Plaintiffs of the FCS approved invitation to come to campus at a date to be determined within the next two months. Plaintiffs’ email also noted the following: “Since the formation of our group, there have been a number of concerns expressed by students, parents, and faculty members. Discussions around Palestine, and often even referring to Palestine at all, are often avoided or deemed to be anti-Semitic both in and outside of the classroom. Despite significant pushback, the school administration is supportive of the group and feels it aligns with our Quaker mission and values.” Within hours Professor Atshan replied: “Thanks so much for this message and invitation. I am deeply honored. I am used to handling these situations in a sensitive and nuanced manner. I have a lot of respect for Friends Central and would love to speak there in the next two months.”

23. A date for the talk was chosen; Friday, February 10, 2017.

25. On Monday, February 6, 2017 announcements of Professor Atshan’s Friday talk were posted, and a morning announcement of the talk was read during homeroom. Upper School Principal Hall checked in with Plaintiff Eure to inform her that one parent had called with concerns but that the call seemed to go well.

26. That same day at 3:44 p.m., Mr. Hall sent Plaintiffs the following email captioned “A new development around Friday”, containing the following content: “Ariel & Layla: I need to speak with you about Friday’s invited guest. I do not want to divulge too much in an email, so I will catch up with you both tomorrow, if l don’t see you later today.”

27. Within 30 minutes of the receipt of above-referenced email, Plaintiff Eure spoke with Mr. Hall and was told that a number of parents had voiced their opposition to Professor Atshan’s speaking at FCS. Mr. Hall instructed them to cancel the speaker. At the same time, as part of his plan to divest himself of any responsibility, he branded the action as being “not fair and not right.” He assured Plaintiffs that he had told Defendant Sellers that Plaintiffs had been acting appropriately. At the same time, he said that he could not let the speech happen. Mr. Hall specifically left it to Plaintiffs to contact Professor Atshan and notify him of the administration’s decision.

28. On Tuesday February 7, Plaintiffs informed the club members of the decision to cancel Professor Atshan’s speech. The students revealed to Plaintiffs that they intended to walk out of Meeting for Worship the following day. This information was, in turn, relayed by Plaintiffs to the FCS administration. Mr. Hall specifically signified his approval of the action, as long as it was done in the spirit of Meeting for Worship, saying that it was not fair and not right for there not to have dialogue.

29. On February 8, 2017, at 9:11 a.m., Plaintiff Eure emailed Professor Atshan to notify him of the cancellation stating in part as follows: ” …. I write to you to share some frustrating and disappointing news. Within hours of the announcement being posted, prominent families began contacting our administration and the Board of Trustees and implied that by bringing you to campus the school was supporting the BDS movement. As a result, the school has now asked that we cancel the event. Despite our efforts over the last two days, and the administration’s recognition that the decision to cancel the event contradicts with its Quaker values, the administration is now refusing to uphold the agreement we originally made.. ..” Professor Atshan’s subsequent communication again stressed his Quaker background and history, all to no avail. On that same day ,

Sa’ed Atshan, Swarthmore College Peace & Conflict Studies Assistant Professor.

31. In the afternoon of Wednesday, February 8, Plaintiffs were called into a meeting by Mr. [Art] Hall [Head of the FCS Upper school] and Assistant Head of School Mariama Richards. Ms. Richards has also purportedly been the school’s Diversity Officer. Plaintiff Eure shared with them that the students were planning an open discussion or teach-in for Friday when Professor Atshan was originally scheduled to speak. Mr. Hall and Ms. Richards suggested to Plaintiffs that they not attend for their own protection emphasizing that “it would be bad for you.” Further they belittled Plaintiffs’ minority status by saying that they knew the private school world better than Plaintiffs and that “as teachers of color, you need to trust us.” Consistent with what they were allowed to do in the past, Plaintiffs responded that they would go as students had specifically invited them. Plaintiffs’ viewed this as a teaching moment about non-violence in a Quaker institution. Mr. Hall and Ms. Richards never instructed Plaintiffs not to attend the meeting. What did take place was another clear abdication of any responsibility by Upper School Head Hall, who told Plaintiffs “if you threaten my ability to provide for my family, it’s not going to be good.” Plaintiffs were on their own.

COMMENT: “If you threaten my ability to provide for my family . . . .” This comment by Hall is striking. The clear inference is that his job too was now somehow at risk in connection with the aborted invitation. My suspicion is that there was blowback, not simply against the Atshan invitation, but against him for the encouraging comments he had made to the Plaintiffs about the club, and the Atshan invitation. He had, after all, approved it. There is more to this . . .

32. During the late evening of February 8, 2017, Professor Atshan sent an extensive email to Defendant [Head of School Craig] Sellers pleading for his talk to be reinstated. This email included a telling comment characterizing the discriminatory atmosphere at FCS:

“At a time when we, as LGBTQ people of color, are experiencing increased vulnerability, threats, bullying, and silencing in the United States under Trump, I would not have expected to be silenced by a Quaker institution of all places, especially since I am a proud product of Quaker education, from Ramallah Friends through Swarthmore.” The email concludes with “I would have loved to contribute to your students;’ interest in furthering their social and global consciousness in accordance with Quaker values. I hope that one day Friends Central will be a welcoming place to Palestinians and Israelis of conscience. I have faith that this is possible.”

33. On Thursday, February 9, 2017 FCS, was officially closed due to snow. Nonetheless, Ms. Richards tried to reach Plaintiffs. . . . The resulting email from Ms. Richards exemplified the FCS administration’s patronizing disdain for fundamental Quaker values of free speech as well as FCS students. Ms. Richards emailed Plaintiffs on February 9 stating that “Craig [Sellers], Art [Hall] and I are trying to find a way forward.” She goes on to state “I maintain that although the students have opinions and need that space, I wonder if they have all of the skills to support a balanced conversation given the heated moment.” Of course, the “heated moment” arose entirely as a result of Defendants’ actions. Given that the Defendants and FCS administration cancelled the talk in the fashion that they did with the attendant fallout, the inability to support a balanced conversation rested with solely with Defendants, not the students.

34. . . . Consistent with his previously stated concern for himself, Mr. Hall became emotionally choked up with self-pity, saying that the students did not know how hard it was for him. (1-1-p.1)

37. On Sunday February 12, Plaintiffs and faculty received two unusual emails. The entire faculty, including Plaintiffs, received an email from Mr. Hall asking them to arrive early Monday morning at 7:30a.m. for a faculty meeting. Immediately thereafter, Plaintiffs received a second email from Ms. Richards asking them to meet with Defendant Sellers individually, away from campus at the Llanerch Diner, at staggered times of 7:30 and 8:00 a.m. respectively, on that very same Monday morning.

38. Plaintiffs arrived early at the diner for their meeting and met with their  lawyer. . . . Defendant Sellers refused to allow Plaintiffs’ lawyer to be present. Immediately after he dismissed their lawyer, Defendant Sellers informed Plaintiffs that they were now on administrative leave. [FCS Director of Finance and Operations Miriam Fisher Schaefer, who was also present] stated that this was effective immediately, insisting that they turn in their iPads, Chromebooks and keys. She informed them that their email had been shut off and that they were no longer allowed to perform any FCS work. Making a mockery of Quaker practice, Defendant Sellers then said that he hoped to “move forward in a loving compassionate way and to hold each other “in the light.” The most that was offered by way of explanation for their suspension was the convoluted contention that Plaintiffs “had taken a single-minded approach to a complicated issue for the community.”

43. On February 16, 2017, Plaintiffs’ counsel received a telephone call from Margaret A. McCausland, Esquire, who described herself as a “neutral” or “impartial” investigator appointed to investigate the circumstances attendant to Plaintiffs’ suspension. As it turned out, Defendant Sellers, the FCS Board, and attorney David Fryman of [the law firm] Ballard Spahr, had turned Plaintiffs’ request for an investigation of Defendant Sellers on its head, deciding instead to prosecute Plaintiffs and delegate Board responsibility to [Ms. McCausland] the hand-picked choice of Mr. Fryman, who proved to be anything but “independent” and “impartial”. Plaintiffs had no input into her selection and found her self-serving description of impartiality to be hypocritical, at best. Ms. McCausland came to freely admit that she defends employment-related lawsuits. When it came to her “investigations”, she admitted that she has always been hired and paid by the accused employer, not employees. Despite her investigating what happened at a Quaker school, Ms. McCausland proved to be woefully ignorant of fundamental Quaker precepts.

Plaintiffs were interviewed by Ms. McCausland and their testimony was in accordance with the representations made in this lawsuit. Further, Plaintiff Ariel Eure told Ms. McCausland that other FCS employees had violated procedures and directives and were never punished. Plaintiffs’ counsel repeatedly objected to the manner in which Ms. Ms. McCausland conducted her purposefully unrecorded inquisition. At no time were Plaintiffs able to call witnesses or confront their accusers. Ms. McCausland submitted her report which was bought, paid for, and only communicated to Defendant FCS. Plaintiffs were refused a copy. To this day, Plaintiffs have no knowledge of the contents of this report.

46. In the ensuing weeks a “task force” was commissioned, supposedly in the short term to facilitate and create programming on Israel and Palestine, and in the long-term to develop a framework to deal with sensitive issues. True to form, Defendant Sellers controlled and manipulated the process, as written guidelines for the faculty panel of the task force specifically forbade them from discussing the handling of the club, the choice of speaker, and discussing anything about Plaintiffs. They were only to discuss a process for selecting appropriate guest speakers. Although the faculty panel was supposed to have three meetings, after only two meetings, the task force announced that its work was complete. Teachers were very much excluded from deliberations in what proved to be merely window-dressing.

In the words of one teacher, in a letter addressed to the Board:

Most importantly however, is Mr. Sellers poor modeling of Quaker values. Quakerism teaches us that truth is always revealing itself, and we allow this to take place by having open discussion prior to making decisions, especially with those affected by the decisions. In all our dealings, however, Mr. Sellers’ opaque and top-down approach places constraints on open discussion about problems and conflicts. Time and again, he frames questions to shape the answers people can give rather than allowing for a truly open-ended discussion. He makes his decisions without leaving them open to interrogation or query by the faculty or students. This is not the Quaker way and it does not model a way of being in the world that questions truth and power- the real strength of a Quaker education.

48. On February 9, 2017 Defendant Sellers sent a “Message from the Head of School to Upper School Families” taking credit for having “transformed our usual weekly Meeting for Worship into a Meeting for Sharing”.

In pertinent part, he labeled as “facts” the following:

* We have students on campus who wish to learn more about the Middle East and are interested in the possibility of peaceful activism.

* Teachers identified a college professor who they hoped would be a more helpful resource and educator.

* This professor was invited to come to our City Avenue campus to speak to interested Upper School students.

* It emerged that the professor selected raised concerns for some members of our community.

* In the interest of moving forward in a productive, community-oriented way, I have decided to pause on having any speaker at this time.

* We are focused on identifying a way forward that serves our student community more broadly.

49. What followed on February 10, 2017 was another public “Message” from Defendant Sellers to Upper School Families stressing the need for communication and announcing his convening a task force to shape an educational forum. Ignoring his own discriminatory conduct, Defendant Sellers states that:

Our School simply has no place for any kind of disrespectful conduct that stereotypes, leaves anyone feeling unsafe or threatened, or leaves anyone feeling ‘less than’ . The way forward is to insist on respectful, engaged dialogue from every comer of our community.

50. Upon information and belief, Defendant Sellers released a public statement sometime on or about February 13, 2017 claiming, in part, the following:

As a Quaker school, we have long-standing expectations of all members of our community-especially for our teachers, who have the responsibility of guiding young minds. There are very real concerns about the conduct of Ariel Eure and Layla Helwa for their disregard of our guiding testimonies, which include community, peace and integrity. As of today, Ariel Eure and Layla Helwa are on indefinite paid administrative leave while a more extensive review is conducted.

This malicious language defamed Plaintiffs and placed them in a false light, specifically stating that they lacked integrity and suggesting that they behaved in a rogue, violent and/or corrupt or immoral fashion. Plaintiffs can and will present witness testimony as to this communication , which was widely disseminated and appeared in the media, before being taken down from the FCS website.

Defendant Philip E. Scott, Clerk of FCS Trustees

53. After matters gained further attention in the media and Plaintiffs counsel attempted to settle this matter, Defendant Board Clerk Philip Scott on February 20, 2017 publicly mischaracterized what had transpired as a “pause”. In addition, he stated that “The teachers being placed on paid leave is not connected to the decision to invite the speaker. The decision to place them on paid leave was because the two teachers failed to follow explicit directives, and their stated intentions going forward. To say anything more would be inappropriate given that this is a personnel matter still under review and consideration.”

Upon information and belief, Defendant Sellers caused Mr. Scott to parrot and publish the same defamatory language concerning Plaintiffs as in the communication cited previously herein. Furthermore, any genuine concern for confidentiality of “personnel matters” would have prevented any statements being made whatsoever pertaining to Plaintiffs. Mr. Scott’s Message ended with the “entirety of what Friends Central received from the lawyer for Ariel Eure and Layla Helwa”:


What follows is my clients settlement demand. It is good through noon on Monday and then should be considered withdrawn:

I . My clients be allowed to return to their jobs on campus

2. My clients be extended an apology from the school.

3. My clients expenses incurred be paid by the school.

4. Professor Atshan be extended an apology from the school.

5. Professor Atshan be extended an invitation to speak at the school.

Again, this will be withdrawn as of noon on Monday.

In fact, Defendant Scott [Clerk of FCS Trustees] made these announcements during an all school “in service day” in which he read the settlement conditions and explained that school leadership would not be bullied. At this meeting, and other meeting prior thereto, a host of faculty members voiced concern about the decision to “pause” Professor Atshan’s visit, about dealing so harshly with Plaintiffs, and to failing to uphold Quaker values especially those pertaining to diversity, inclusion and Quaker process. In depicting outright racial bias, the FCS administration bizarrely accused the faculty of being insensitive to the needs of students of color, subsequently launching a series of meetings devoted to diversity training, led by Ms. Mariama Richards. This “diversity training” has proceeded into the current school year and constitutes an admission by the FCS administration of an intolerant environment constituting a violation of applicable civil rights laws, that Plaintiffs had previously criticized.

56. After Defendants received the McCausland report they bought and paid for from their hand-picked “independent ” investigator, Defendant FCS, via its Board Clerk[Philip E. Scott] published the following on April 7, 2017:

Dear Friends:

I am writing to update you on a complex personnel matter that has been unfolding at Friends’ Central School. While we strive to maintain the confidentiality of personnel matters, we nonetheless appreciate the continued desire for information.

The independent investigation into Ariel Eure and Layla Helwa’ s allegations of discrimination and harassment has been completed. The investigation, conducted by an independent third party, did not substantiate those claims.

The conclusion of this process opens the way for Friends’ Central to address the teachers ‘ employment status. That process will remain confidential.

57. As referenced hereinbefore, Plaintiffs, pursuant to the FCS Handbook filed a harassment claim against Defendant Sellers with the Board, which wholly abdicated its responsibilities. Mr. Scott’ s words further blackened Plaintiffs’ reputations as his carefully chosen language makes the “complex personnel matter” a problem with Plaintiffs, not Defendant Sellers. Pains are taken to refer to an “independent investigation” which was anything but. The last sentence of the above-paragraph [in Sellers’ letter] simply pushes Plaintiffs towards the guillotine, maliciously and capriciously invoking confidentiality on a process which from the beginning was anything but confidential. If there were any true concern with confidentiality, there would have been no release or comment whatsoever.

58. On May 9, 2017, Defendant Sellers sent identical job termination letters to Plaintiffs headed “Personal and Confidential” together with a proposed “Severance Agreement and General Release of Claims” which Plaintiffs have refused to sign. The May 9, 2017 correspondence gave no reason for Plaintiffs’ termination.

59. Empty “Confidentiality” concerns are repeatedly invoked and then ignored by Defendants in their campaign to malign Plaintiffs. Witness another written public pronouncement made by Defendant Sellers on the very same day, May 9, 2017 announcing Plaintiffs’ termination, beginning with the words “Dear Friends” and then the following:

As you know, Upper School teachers Ariel Eure and Layla Helwa were placed on paid administrative leave earlier this year.

After a deliberate and thoughtful Quaker decision-making process, considering each teacher individually, we have decided that they will not be returning to Friends’ Central. Further details about this matter will remain confidential.

We are meeting with Upper School students this afternoon to let them know of this decision. We understand that the news may be upsetting to some; members of the support services team will attend this student meeting and will be available.

Please contact your division principal, Dean of Students, school counselor Frederick Pratt, or me if your child is in need of support.

Academic excellence, attention to individual students, opportunities for leadership, and Quaker values have and will continue to be hall marks of a Friends’ Central education .

I appreciate and look forward to partnering with all of you in educating your children.


Craig N. Sellers.

COMMENT: While it is not mentioned here, at the same time that plaintiffs Eure and Halwa were being terminated, Upper School Principal Arthur Hall left his post as well. Was he pushed out, taking the inside fall for the Atshan fiasco? Or had he perhaps managed to turn the incident into the basis for a promotion: he is now Assistant Head of School & Dean of Student Life at the Tower Hill School of Wilmington, Delaware. Tower Hill has a number of high-ranking Delaware politicians as its alumni, and claims to be among the 50 top-rated private schools in the U. S. His departure from FCS may have been unexpected: his replacement, a year later, is still listed as an “Interim” Principal for the FCS Upper School.

60. Of course, nothing in terms of “deliberate and thoughtful Quaker decision-making” ever took place. In fact, what occurred was quite the opposite. Plaintiffs were further impugned by the language of the fourth paragraph of the above communication indicating that Plaintiffs had departed from “academic excellence, attention to individual students.. .. Leadership, and Quaker values.” Clearly, Defendants need for confidentiality only applied to their suppressing information regarding their own culpability, not when it came to defaming Plaintiffs and placing them in a false light, all of which has damaged their reputations and their professional future. If Defendants had truly felt the need for confidentialit y this announcement would never have been made. When it came to “counseling and support” for students, upon information and belief, Defendant Sellers’ behavior provided neither. For example, when a student left a note for Defendant Sellers indicating that he/she wanted to deliver a student petition to him in support of Plaintiffs, he/she was pulled out of class to meet with Defendant Sellers and a school counselor. Upon information and belief, they called him/her mentally unstable, thereby clouding  the student’ s record and jeopardizing his/her future. While the student’s parent was livid, that parent feared that further damage would be inflicted by Defendant Sellers upon the student.

61. Inexplicably, on the same day that Plaintiffs were fired, Defendants disingenuously re-invited Professor Atshan to speak at campus, indicating that a future date would be announced. In an email of May 15, 2017, Professor Atshan declined the invitation and reiterated that he would be happy to speak if the teachers were re-hired. While Professor Atshan has not been afforded the privilege of speaking at FCS, since May of 2017 he has spoken at over 20 academic institutions including Harvard University, Columbia, Haverford College, George Washington University, Brown Universi ty, University of New Mexico, and University of Pennsylvania.

70. Naturally one would wonder about the faculty’ s response to Defendants’ behavior in this case. However, Defendant Sellers has taken deliberate actions to isolate the faculty from the Board. Early on in his administration, he took steps to exclude faculty representatives from board meetings, appointing himself as liaison between the trustees and the employees of the school. Defendant Sellers also eliminated any checks and balances with respect to administration and faculty committees which would otherwise hold him accountable. It is noteworthy that no trustees attended the faculty/staff meeting for sharing held after the disinvitation of Professor Atshan. Despite the much heralded yet underwhelming task force, faculty and staff advisors to the task force received explicit directives not to discuss administration behavior. Despite pleas to the Board of Directors, the Board repeatedly failed to assert itself and neglected its responsibilities when it comes to supervising and holding Defendant Sellers accountable, generally, and specifically with respect to his actions taken against Plaintiffs. Discovery promises to reveal the extent to which Defendant Sellers communicated with the Board beforehand, about his dealings with Plaintiffs.

71. What has been set forth hereinbefore with respect to Plaintiffs’ suspension and firing is not only entirely at odds with basic tenets of Quaker education, but also with the 2016- 2017 Employee Handbook issued by the Board of Trustees listing Phillip E. Scott as Chair, or Clerk. Pertinent portions are quoted as follows:

Our Mission: We cultivate the intellectual , spiritual, and ethical promise of our students.

Our Vision: To awaken courage and intellect- and peacefully transform the world. (Cover page)

Under the heading “The FRIENDS CENTRAL SCHOOL PHILOSOPHY”, in addition to claiming to be “guided by the Quaker testimonies of simplicity, peace, integrity, community, equality, and stewardship ,” the Handbook emphasizes the following:

We intentionally seek a wide spectrum of diversity in our School community. We respect unreservedly that diversity and strive to enhance and support it. Diversity influences how we teach, learn, and communicate. It enriches the community and furthers understanding that each human life is intrinsically valuable and interrelated, one with another. . . .



Ariel Christina Eure and Layla Helwa vs. Friends’ Central School Corp.


Ariel Christina Eure and Layla Helwa vs. Friends’ Central School Corp.


Ariel Christina Eure and Layla Helwa vs. Friends’ Central School Corp.

COUNT 4: DEFAMATION 42 Pa. Cons. Stat. §§ 8341-8345

Ariel Christina Eure and Layla Helwa vs. Friends’ Central School Corp. Craig Sellers, Phillip Scott and John Doe and Jane Doe #’s 1-29


Ariel Christina Eure and Layla Helwa vs. Friends’ Central School Corp. Craig Sellers, Phillip Scott and John Doe and Jane Doe #’s 1-29


Ariel Christina Eure and Layla Helwa vs. Friends’ Central School Corp. Phillip Scott and John Doe and Jane Doe #’s 1-29


128. This civil action seeks on behalf of Plaintiffs, legal and equitable relief including:

a. A declaratory judgment declaring that Defendant Friends’ Central School Corp. has illegally discriminated against Plaintiff under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, as amended 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq., and the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act.

b. An appropriate remedial order, granting injunctive relief, directing and requiring the following:

1. Appointment of a civil rights monitor or trustee over Defendant FCS’ operations, fully empowered to implement any injunctive relief issued by this Court, to oversee any and all employment practices until such time as Defendant FCS no longer discriminates against its employees.

11. An immediate ban on any use of any discriminatory activities of the type described hereinbefore.

m. Such other remedial action as is needed to enforce compliance with all relevant standards of non-discrimination and non-retaliation on the basis of race, color, sex (including sexual orientation), and religion.

v. In lieu of reinstatement of seniority and benefits with back and front pay for Plaintiffs, the provision of sufficient monetary sums to cover the same, and payment of such other compensatory damages, together with attorney’s fees and the costs of suit, to Plaintiffs in excess of $150,000, in an amount to be determined at trial for each of her Federal and State civil rights counts set forth hereinbefore at Counts I and III.

v1. Payment of general damages, compensatory damages, and punitive damages (if applicable), together with attorney’s fees and the costs of suit to Plaintiffs for their harm suffered as a result of their post-employment retaliati on count set forth hereinbefore as Count II.

vn. Payment of general damages, compensatory damages, and punitive damages, together with attorney’s fees and the costs of suit to Plaintiffs for their harm suffered as a result of their defamation count set forth hereinbefore as Count IV.

vm. Payment of general damages, compensatory damages, and punitive damages, together with attorney’s fees and the costs of suit to Plaintiffs for their harm suffered as a result of their false light count set forth hereinbefore as Count V.

1x. Payment of general damages, compensatory damages, and punitive damages, together with attorney’ s fees and the costs of suit to Plaintiffs for their harm suffered as a result of their negligent supervision count set forth hereinbefore as Count VI.

x. Such other and further relief as the Court may deem just and proper.

x1. Retention of jurisdiction by this Court until such time as the Court is satisfied that Defendants have remedied the practices complained of herein and are determined to be in full compliance with the law.


The Plaintiff demands trial by jury of all issues triable of right to a jury.

COMMENT: Maybe at trial, the defendants could make a compelling case on their own behalf that they decline to even hint at now. But I wonder. How would they cope with, among other humiliating lines of questioning, explaining how trashing the Atshan invitation, then firing Eure and Halwa, in any way showed “intellectual courage”? Or could they untangle their selective, convoluted and transparently self-serving versions of “confidentiality”? While I’m no lawyer, my reading of this initial filing strongly suggests the lawsuit is neither frivolous nor insubstantial. My guess is that the defendants will hope to find some way to get it dismissed, or failing that, will swallow hard & dig deep to purchase the stifling blanket of silence a settlement could throw over it. Then they could begin the task of rebuilding their and their school’s reputations. I expect that will be a long, uphill slog.

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Categories: Blogs

Three Reflections on Wisdom

Mon, 05/21/2018 - 7:36pm

Wisdom, One: Spring Friends Meeting, North Carolina — 05-06-2018

In the early 1830s, a young man from Boston went to sea, hoping to make his fortune. A Presbyterian by birth, he read his Bible each night in his shipboard  hammock, and he was haunted by a verse in the fourth chapter of the Book of Proverbs: 

 “Wisdom is the principal thing: Therefore, get wisdom: and with all thy getting, get wisdom”  Wealth, the youth piously decided, was nothing without this seasoning of wisdom. But where was such a combination to be found?

Presently his ship sailed into the harbor of Nantucket Island. Nantucket was then a wealthy and vibrant community, built and largely populated by Quakers. 

As he walked the bustling, cobbled streets of Nantucket town, observing the fine grey shingled houses and the plain but prosperous inhabitants, another verse from the Book of Proverbs came to him. It was something about “I am Wisdom, and in my right hand is riches and honor.”  

The more he saw of Nantucketers, the more he felt sure that here was a group that genuinely understood and knew how to successfully apply this kind of Wisdom.

When he turned down one street, which was known then as “Petticoat Row,” he saw a succession of neat, prosperous-looking shops and stores. Almost all were operated by Quaker businesswomen, whose husbands were away at sea.

The sailor was so impressed with this commercial tableau that he impulsively entered one of the shops, a kind of grocery store. He walked up to the counter and said to the plain-dressed woman behind it, “Madam, I  want to know why you Nantucket Quakers seem so wise and successful in the ways of the world.”

The Quaker woman said to him, naturally very humbly, “Well, of course, Friend, it’s mainly because we follow the Inward Light. But,” she added, “it’s also because we eat a special kind of fish, the Wisdom Fish.”

“Wisdom Fish?” the sailor exclaimed. “What’s that? Where could I get some?”

“Friend,” the Quaker shopkeeper said, “thee is in luck. I just happen to have one here, which I can sell thee for only twenty dollars.”

Twenty dollars was a lot of money in those days, but the sailor didn’t hesitate. He pulled out his purse, handed over the money, and she gave him a carefully wrapped parcel, which he carried out of the shop with an excited smile on his face. 

He returned a few minutes later, however, looking puzzled and a bit disturbed. “Excuse me, madam,” he said, laying the half-opened package on the counter. “This is nothing but a piece of ordinary dried codfish.”

Under her modest white bonnet, the Quaker shopkeeper raised one eyebrow. 

“Friend,” she said quietly, “thee is getting wiser already.”  

The Wisdom Fish? Or merely dried cod?

I want to talk about Wisdom. Especially wisdom in the Bible.

The Bible is a collection of books, containing many different kinds of texts: letters; histories; prophecies; laws. Some poetry, and in Psalms, a hymnbook. A wide range of texts. 

It doesn’t matter for this study whether you “believe” in the Bible. Apart from that, it’s become part of our everyday speech in English. It’s the source of many familiar  images & saying. Here are just a few– 

A drop in the bucket

Isaiah 40:15: “Behold, the nations are as a drop of a bucket, and are counted as the small dust of the balance: behold, he taketh up the isles as a very little thing.”

A Fly in the ointment.

Ecclesiastes 10:1 says: “Dead flies cause the ointment to stink . . .’

A Labor of love

Thessalonians 1:2, 1:3: “We give thanks to God always for you all, making mention of you in our prayers; Remembering without ceasing your work of faith, and labor of love . . .”

The Bible has also generated many familiar types: If I call someone “A Good Samaritan,”  a “Jezebel,” a “scapegoat,” or the “apple of my eye,” most of us will know what I mean, even if they don’t know they all came from the Bible.

So again, whether you believe it or not, biblical materials are woven into our culture.

There’s another kind of text in it besides those I mentioned, which is what I want to talk about: texts of wisdom. They have their own section in the Hebrew Scriptures (aka the Old Testament). Jewish scholars call it “The Writings.” 

The most clearly marked of these texts is the book of Proverbs – a proverb is a short pithy saying, often metaphorical, that is thought to express a general truth about practical, virtuous & successful living.

Scholars argue over the origins of these texts. Collections of proverbs have been found in numerous cultures of the Bible world, many of which are similar to some in the Book of Proverbs. And because literacy was then so scarce, the scribes who could write, not only collected & copied the proverbs, they often ended up as advisors to the powerful, tribal chiefs and early kings.

In the Book of Proverbs there are several collections. And some repeated themes. One we have already seen in the anecdote at the beginning: Wisdom is the way to riches and honor. And those riches are for now, this life, this world, not some pie in the sky heaven by and bye. Here’s one passage that summarizes many, in a modern easy-ro-read version:

Proverbs 6:12–  Some people are just troublemakers. They are always thinking up some crooked plan and telling lies. 13 They use secret signals to cheat people; they wink their eyes, shuffle their feet, and point a finger. 14 They are always planning to do something bad. 15 But they will be punished. Disaster will strike, and they will be destroyed. There will be no one to help them.

There’s plenty more like this, but shorter:

Proverbs 11:8: “The righteous are protected from trouble; it comes to the wicked instead.”  

And 11:31: “Those who are good are rewarded here on earth, so you can be sure that wicked and sinful people will be punished.”

In Pr. 4:23, for instance we have, at least in some versions, a statement about Positive Mental Attitude:

“Be careful how you think; your life is shaped by your thoughts.”  

In three places, Proverbs warns us very explicitly to avoid getting involved with the debts of others: Pr. 6:1-5; 17:18; and most pointedly of all in 20:16 (TEV):

“Anyone stupid enough to promise to be responsible for a stranger’s debts ought to have his own property held to guarantee payment.” 

You get the idea.

So crime doesn’t pay, and virtue is reliably rewarded. But there’s also Wisdom here which could be construed as “wising up,” a word to the wise, street-wise, for wise guys and gals. This is the Wisdom, even, of the Nantucket Quaker shopkeeper and her fish. 

You think I’m exaggerating? Read Pr. 20:14 in a modern version: “The customer always complains that the price is too high, but then he goes off and brags about the bargain he got.”  

And if that sailor in Nantucket gets overly upset about the $20 codfish, Proverbs also has advice for the shrewd shopkeeper as well: [Pr 20:14] “If someone is angry with you, a gift (bribe) given secretly will calm him down.” (For instance, $130,000 for someone to forget about an um, inconvenient indiscretion.)

I’ve called this theme “Hebrew Dress for Success.” And there’s no doubt that there’s much valuable advice here. Work hard. Avoid debt. Stay out of trouble. But one aspect of this I’d like to highlight: The Bible, to many, is a record of God’s revelation. And when we hear this we often think of remarkable experiences: Moses at a burning bush that talks. Prophets having visions; stone tablets bearing words written by God’s finger. And so forth.

But Proverbs is free of such marvels. It refers to the religious law, but you won’t find its counsel coming as: “Thus Saith the Lord, don’t drink too much.” 

Nope. Instead, Proverbs finds its wisdom in observation and reflection, from human experience and insight. And it finds this insight in ordinary daily experience, involving in just one chapter ants, badgers, grasshoppers, and lizards. There is not an angel, a burning bush, or a miracle cure anywhere in sight.

And yet, this book is part of a volume that’s supposed to contain God’s revelation to people. What I found intriguing about this, and reassuring too, is that it indicates such “revelation” can come not only through supernatural events, which are sometimes hard to accept, but also from and through everyday life, using our human minds and imagination. And I’m also free to disagree with it, like the part in Proverbs 23 about beating my children. 

That freedom is important to me, because I’m not at all sure I’ve ever had an angel appear to me; but I have seen and experienced lots to think about in everyday life, to reflect on, and I’ve learned valuable truths from that. 

So the Book of Proverbs and the other Wisdom texts are not just about good advice; but they embody a mode of “revelation” not reserved only to prophets or priests or ancient texts, but potentially available right now to anyone who is ready to observe keenly and reflect deeply.

Now, while my own observation & reflection has confirmed much of what I find in Proverbs, I have also seen much that doesn’t fit with its model of guaranteed riches & honor for the righteous. In fact I’m sorry to say that I’ve often seen the exact opposite happening.

So if I could talk to the editors of Proverbs, I’d want to ask – what about these people, righteous enough, innocent enough, who didn’t get rich and live happily ever after? Are they in your Wisdom texts somewhere?

Well yes, they are. Not so much in the Book of Proverbs, but very much in the Wisdom texts. And we’ll explore that next time.

  Wisdom at Spring, Two: 05-13-2018

Last week I spoke about the Bible traditionally being considered a record of God’s revelation, and that revelation is usually associated with extraordinary and dramatic events: the parting of the Red Sea; a heavenly voice speaking to Saul on the road to Damascus; phenomenal cures, prophetic visions, talking to angels.

But the Wisdom books mostly convey their message without any such marvels. Here by and large we find texts dealing with the most mundane and common of experiences: marriage and family life; farming, business, bureaucracy and government; wealth and poverty, even insects. And instead of miracles, or thunderous divine commandments, here we see a process of experience being reflected upon and the results expressed concisely and tellingly. There is not an angel, a burning bush, or a miracle cure anywhere in sight.

Also last week I looked at the book of Proverbs, which repeatedly assures us that being good will reliably lead us to riches and success in this life, and bad people will assuredly be punished soon. Proverbs 11:31 sums it up: “Those who are good are rewarded here on earth, so you can be sure that wicked and sinful people will be punished.” 

But that’s not what the book right next to it, called Ecclesiastes, says.

The speaker in Ecclesiastes is someone called the Preacher, the Teacher, or even the Philosopher. Sometimes he sounds like King Solomon, who was supposed to be the wisest man ever. In any case, he has seen what many of us have also seen, which is the exact opposite of what Proverbs predicts often happens: the good person loses; the bad guys win. And what’s worse, innocent people suffer, even children. 

And even for prosperous, successful people, many find themselves one day questioning all the things that signify their success. I saw this happen in 1992, after working as a congressional staffer, when a large number of members of Congress, all certified as successful in their profession, asked “So What?” but couldn’t find an answer, and rushed for the exits. (Writing in Spring 2018, I see the same thing happening again.)

An older version of that one phrase is one that should be familiar to many of us. And in the early 90s it became urgent for me in an almost spooky way, as if some stranger kept tiptoeing up behind me, tapped me on the shoulder, and then whispered loudly in my ear: 

“‘Vanity of vanities,’ saith the Preacher, ‘all is vanity and a striving after wind.’”  That’s an old, very stately translation. More recent ones are harsher: Useless. Pointless. Meaningless. A Waste of Breath and Time.

 For me, as perhaps for some others, a day comes when, hearing or recalling that verse, from the opening of the first short chapter of the brief biblical Wisdom book of Ecclesiastes, is like having something reach out and grab you by the throat. And it doesn’t let go;

I, the Teacher, was king over Israel in Jerusalem. 13 I applied my mind to study and to explore by wisdom all that is done under the heavens. What a heavy burden God has laid on mankind! 14 I have seen all the things that are done under the sun; all of them are meaningless, a chasing after the wind.

15 What is crooked cannot be straightened;

 what is lacking cannot be counted.

16 I said to myself, “Look, I have increased in wisdom more than anyone who has ruled over Jerusalem before me; I have experienced much of wisdom and knowledge.” 17 Then I applied myself to the understanding of wisdom, and also of madness and folly, but I learned that this, too, is a chasing after the wind.

18  For with much wisdom comes much sorrow;

the more knowledge, the more grief.”

And then, he began to reconsider this so-called wisdom:

12 Then I decided to think about what it means to be wise or to be foolish . . . . . .I saw that wisdom is better than foolishness in the same way that light is better than darkness. 14 Wise people use their minds like eyes to see where they are going. But for fools, it is as if they are walking in the dark.

[But] I also saw that fools and wise people both end the same way. 15 I thought to myself, “The same thing that happens to a fool will also happen to me. So why have I tried so hard to become wise?” [So] I said to myself, “Being wise is also useless.” 16 Whether people are wise or foolish, they will still die, and no one will remember either one of them forever. In the future, people will forget everything both of them did. So the two are really the same.

17 This made me hate life. It was depressing to think that everything in this life is useless, like trying to catch the wind.

These reflections don’t fit with the Book of Proverbs. Which is to say, whatever kind of wisdom it dispenses leaves a lot of life uncovered. That is, its “revelation” has a big hole in it. Actually numerous holes.

The starting point of  this Teacher’s observations is summed up in Ecclesiastes 9:11, one of those verses which the King James expresses the best: 

“I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favor to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.”

Or, as a more modern version frankly puts it, “Bad luck happens to everyone.”

But bad luck was not the worst of what Koheleth saw “under the sun.”  Consider 8:11-14, which modern versions render most tellingly. Here’s one:

“Why do people commit crimes so readily? Because crime is not punished quickly enough. A sinner may commit a hundred crimes and still live. Oh yes, I know what they say: ‘If you obey God, everything will be all right, but it will not go well for the wicked. Their life is like a shadow and they will die young, because they do not obey God.’  But this is nonsense. Look at what happens in the world: sometimes righteous men get the punishment of the wicked, and wicked men get the reward of the righteous. I say it is useless (or vanity; meaningless; chasing after wind, a waste of time).”

This is an extraordinary passage, and here I think this modern translation serves us far better than most older translations, because it highlights the confrontational character of Ecclesiastes. He is not, in my view, simply offering some friendly constructive criticism to his brother editors who compiled Proverbs, pointing up some loose ends in its Dress for Success self-assurance. No, the Teacher wants to fight, and he’s going for the jugular; he even takes on Hebrew theology, and the sages who expounded it, a few verses further on. Again the modern versions do the most justice to his radicalism:

“Whenever I tried to become wise and learn what goes on in the world, I realized that you could stay awake night and day and never be able to understand what God is doing. However hard you try, you will never find out. Wise men may claim to know, but they don’t.”  (8:16-17)

It was amazing to me to find, right there in the Bible, an all-out wrestling match about wisdom. Nor is it a polite debate; as the modern renderings show, it’s more like a brawl.  You could sum up much of this book in the words of a vulgar slogan I’ve seen on more than a few bumpers:  “Life’s a bitch and then you die.” 

And what is the outcome of this brawl? Well, there are different views. To me, after engaging in this struggle, Wisdom emerges as a much more modest figure, one for whom the good practical advice of Proverbs only goes so far, and the gaps it doesn’t cover are not small, and can even be like these bg sinkholes we read about, which can suddenly appear and swallow up roads and cars and houses and even unlucky people.

Besides which the best advice from this Preacher, or Teacher, or Philosopher is brief, and can seem almost trivial, but consistent with what he sees “under the sun.”  He says: 

“8:14 There is something else that happens on earth that does not seem fair. Bad things should happen to bad people, and good things should happen to good people. But sometimes bad things happen to good people, and good things happen to bad people. This is not fair. 15 So I decided it was more important to enjoy life because the best thing people can do in this life is to eat, drink, and enjoy life. At least that will help people put up with the hard work God gave them to do during their life on earth.”

And if this sounds too ordinary, that does not bother the Preacher. In fact, he repeats it in the next chapter:

9:1 “I thought about all this very carefully. I saw that God controls what happens to the good and wise people and what they do. People don’t know if they will be loved or hated, and they don’t know what will happen in the future.

2 But, there is one thing that happens to everyone—we all die! Death comes to good people and bad people. Death comes to those who are pure and to those who are not pure. Death comes to those who give sacrifices and to those who don’t give sacrifices. Good people will die just as sinners do. Those who make promises to God will die just as those who are afraid to make those promises.

3 Of all the things that happen in this life, the worst thing is that all people end life the same way.. . ..

5 The living know that they will die, but the dead don’t know anything. They have no more reward. People will soon forget them. 6 After people are dead, their love, hate, and jealousy are all gone. And they will never again share in what happens on earth.

So the Teacher’s practical conclusions fit this much more modest outlook:

7 So go and eat your food now and enjoy it. Drink your wine and be happy. It is all right with God if you do these things. 8 Wear nice clothes and make yourself look good. 9 Enjoy life with the wife you love. Enjoy every day of your short life. God has given you this short life on earth—and it is all you have. So enjoy the work you have to do in this life. 10 Every time you find work to do, do it the best you can.

He even advises moderation to the earnest do-gooders:

 “Be not righteous overmuch,” he shrugs; “why should you destroy yourself? (7:16)  “The same fate comes to the righteous and the wicked…to those who are religious and those who are not, to those who offer sacrifices and those who do not….”  (9:2)  

After all,

In the grave there is no work. There is no thinking, no knowledge, and there is no wisdom. And we are all going to the place of death.”

The Teacher here has no patience for dreams of “pie in the sky bye and bye . . . .” Yet this passage doesn’t turn out to be as gloomy as I expected. It commends a life without illusions, and centered on what we might call simple, ordinary pleasures and satisfactions. (After all, even these are not guaranteed, so cherish them when you can.)

I really like Ecclesiastes; its advice has held up for me, when the promises of Proverbs have fallen short.

Still, these two are not the end or the sum of wisdom. There’s one more book to grapple with, which many consider the crown of the Hebrew Scriptures and perhaps the whole Bible. And that’s the Book of Job. Spelled like “jahb,” but sounds like “robe.”

Job is not a collection of proverbs; it’s a story, with three characters: one is a man named Job, the second is God, and the third, is our old friend – Wisdom.

Maybe you know the story:  Job, we’re told, has always led a spotless life, and sure enough, when we meet him he is rich and righteous. But Satan, who is actually a buddy of God, speaks skeptically about Job to God and in fact talks God into making a bet on whether Job’s steadfastness would continue if he was subjected to pointless and unjust suffering. 

And so – well, now I’m getting ahead of my story. That tale of Job, his all-out confrontation with God, and the fate of wisdom – all that, is for next time.  

  Wisdom at Spring, Three – 05-20-2018

I got interested in Wisdom largely as a result of a series of shocks of recognition that  came upon me in the early1990s.

One set of shocks had to do with parenthood:  I had young children then, and they clearly saw me as part of the Establishment. As an unrepentant former 1960s radical, that was not how I had viewed myself; but now there was no denying it: I was part of the Establishment – not only part of it, the very FACE of the Establishment. I mean, what else are parents? 

This is hardly an original insight, although it was new to me. And what I also began to realize is that the attitude of children toward this parental Establishment is double-edged.

On the one hand, there is youthful rebellion against it. It was ever thus. How far such rebellion was going to go in the Nineties, whether my children’s generation was going to match mine for pure cussedness, remained to be seen. (Looking back, it wasn’t as bad as I feared.)

And on the other hand, I also began to notice that the parental Establishment is not only what young people rebel against. We also have a positive function: we’re the ones they seek, however equivocally, to learn from.

By “learning,” I don’t mean instruction, in such skills as reading or writing or how to catch a baseball, valuable as these are. Instead, I’m referring to forming a view of life & the world, a sense of its shape, its meaning, and direction. I finally saw that parents provide much of the basic sense of shape, meaning and direction for their children’s world. It is this world-shaping function that I’m going to call “learning” here.

Children get much of this larger or deeper learning from parents, that’s just a fact, whether the parents want them to or not, and whether they feel competent or ready to provide it. The pedagogical role simply comes with the parental territory.

And it’s this part, I’ve concluded, that particularly makes parents the Establishment, no matter what their political views are, or whatever their place in the outside world’s social structures. We parents establish, in large measure, how our children see and feel the world and life.

Much of this learning process goes on unintentionally, even unconsciously. But there are also times when parents are supposed to articulate this role, to put it into words and thereby pass it on intentionally. At such times, children not only learn; parents are also called upon to teach. 

For me, this conscious teaching role was often at its most challenging when it was unexpected–as for instance, when a child asks, in all innocence, something like, “Mom (or Dad), why do we have to go to Meeting (or church)?”

Now, when such a question means only, “Why can’t we stay home on Sunday mornings so I can watch cartoons (or these days, play with my Xbox)?” It is easy enough, and entirely proper, to answer simply, “Because I’m the Dad, (or Mom) and I say so.”  I gave that answer frequently myself.

But such a question often means something more. Even when mixed with petulance, it can be more accurately formulated as, “What’s the significance of this thing called meeting (worship) to my life?” Or yet more challengingly, “What is its meaning in your life, Mom (or Dad)?” 

With such a question, and there are many others like it, children are looking directly to parents – to us – to teach them something important about the shape and meaning of life in their world. 

And how many of us who are parents, especially among those of us who might think of ourselves as somewhat liberal, can really answer such questions? 

(When I was a boy being raised a pre-Vatican Two Catholic, definitely not a liberal setting, the answer was straightforward: “You [& we] go to Mass because if you don’t you’ll end up burning in hell forever.” [At the least, this answer gets serious points for clarity]. But once I left behind being Catholic, the straightforward part was left behind too.)

After that point, it became, not a matter of, “Because I say so,” (or even, “Because God said so”) but rather, “Why do I (or God) say so?”  

I suspect many parents feel, as I often did, like something of a fraud, an impostor, faced with such queries. As in, “Who, me? Explain why we worship?”  (Or explain God? Or pain? Or, say, war?)

Confronted with such questions, parents can run, but take it from this one, they can’t really hide:  At such moments they are explicitly being called upon to teach, ready or not. And they teach as much by what they won’t talk about as what they will. Remember that the subject of this teaching is more than information: it has to do with the shape and meaning and direction of the world, and the place of their young lives within it. For me, and for a tradition that goes back more than two millennia, the name for this kind of teaching has been: Wisdom.

The same teaching role is forced upon parents when we and our children face another kind of shock:  The shock of loss. My children, for instance, have had to make sense of a world in which marriages and families fall apart. That wasn’t easy. And then bigger losses will come, of that we can be sure. Back in the 90s, one such loss was already on the horizon: my oldest and best friend David, a beloved  quasi-uncle to my children, had inoperable cancer. (David was also often a font of wisdom for me. Here’s one of his sayings that has stayed with me. . . .)

David passed in 1995. What, I wondered, was I going to say when my children (or his) asked me, “Why did he have to die?” 

For that matter, what was I going to say to myself?

Suffering and loss: Why?

Of course, you don’t have to be a parent to be haunted by such questions.

For many of us, who have had comfortable lives, these questions can long be safely ignored in favor of the more pressing concerns of youth and young adulthood. But when those questions become inescapable for you, like it or not you have begun a quest for Wisdom, whether you use that term or not. And by my age–I’m now past the three-quarter-century mark–the occasions for asking are piling up:  

Sickness and suffering, mine and that of those close to me.

Why, why, why?

And the one which is either at the top of this list, or I suspect will be soon enough, is: Why do I have to die?  To glimpse our own mortality is one of the surest ways to be pushed willy-nilly into a quest for Wisdom. 

And “where,” to quote an earlier biblical seeker, “where is Wisdom to be found?” (Job 28:12)   

This challenge to the confidence of Proverbs is deepened by the text that many Bible students consider to be the crown of the Hebrew scriptures, if not the entire Bible, the Book of Job. 

You know the story:  Job is rich, respected and righteous, painted as a paragon, but Satan, who is described here as one of the “sons of God,” talks God into making a bet on whether Job’s steadfastness would hold up if he’s subjected to pointless and unjust suffering or if it would wither.

So Job’s family (except for his wife, who leaves) is killed and he gets very sick & ends up covered with boils and sitting on a manure pile. 

Yet with all this, the book says, Job did not sin. And his initial lament is one of the most memorable & dignified Bible passages I know: Job 1:21: “‘Naked came I out of my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return thither: the Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away; blessed be the name of the Lord.’”  And again, in 2:10: “‘Shall we receive good at the hand of God, and shall we not receive evil?”

But while Job may be able to cope with his other traumas, he is then subjected to a series of pious sermons from four well-meaning friends, who harangue him endlessly with the Proverbs notion of the good always winning out. So if he’s suffering now, then despite all the visible record, he must be a terrible sinner, and deserves it all. And this harassment by these “friends” sends him over the edge.

In Chapter 13, he denounces, not only these false comforters, but the very “revelation” they are so devotedly, if mindlessly, parroting: “‘Everything you guys say, I have heard before. I understand it all; I know as much of this as you do…. But my dispute is with God, not you….You cover up your ignorance with lies; you are like doctors who can’t heal anyone. Talk a lot of nothing, and someone may think you are wise!’” (13:1,3,4-5)  Then in Chapter 21, Job really lays it on the line. He’s believed & behaved as he was taught; he has done no wrong. 

So why is he suffering so? He shakes his boil-covered fist not simply at his prattling “friends,” but at God. Again it is in the modern versions that its pungency really comes through:

“My quarrel is not with mortal men….Why does God let evil men live, let them grow old and prosper?…God does not bring disaster on their homes; they never have to live in terror….On the day God is angry and punishes, it is the wicked man who is always spared.”  (Job 21:4,7,9,30) 

So here we find the comforting Wisdom of Proverbs, and the complacent “Eat, drink & be merry” notions of Ecclesiastes, not merely questioned, but fiercely–and I think, very effectively–under attack. And this confrontation is a new feature of the biblical Wisdom material that I want to highlight.

One reason to highlight it is that, as gloomy as these parts of the Wisdom writings may seem to some, I find them tremendously refreshing, even uplifting. In fact, I’m not sure I could believe that the Bible was really a special, “revealing” book, if Ecclesiastes and Job weren’t in it. 

After all the miracles and mythology in other parts of the biblical texts, it’s plain speaking, no rationalizations. While extraordinary or miraculous events may happen now and then, I live most of the time in the ordinary and everyday. And it is these biblical voices, rooted in the everyday, that most often speak to my condition. I may try to expect a miracle, but what I depend on daily is Wisdom –if I can find any.

Yet I am also uplifted–inspired would be a better word–by the process I see at work here. This is the third crucial aspect of these texts that I want to highlight: the fact that in it this dialectic, this “heresy,” this wrestling with the God who was portrayed in Proverbs is also a challenge to traditional understandings of revelation –this process of challenging God–is affirmed by the body of revelation itself. 

Again, take Job. At the end of his trials, after he has rejected his friends’ rationalizations and demanded an accounting from God, as to the meaning and justice of what has happened to him, — finally God responds, and speaks to him out of the whirlwind. (It’s more like a tornado that suddenly touches down in front of his dung heap.)

But when God speaks, Job doesn’t get the answers that he seeks; in fact, there are really no answers at all. The explanation of such absurd injustice remains part of the divine mystery. God overwhelms & overawes Job, and Job is overwhelmed by this direct encounter with his Maker.

But then God does something else that to me is very remarkable. God rebukes Job’s friends, those who loyally upheld and tediously repeated the conventional proverbial Wisdom and its theology. Instead God commends Job, the challenger: “‘I am angry with you so-called friends, because you didn’t speak the truth about me, the way my servant Job did.’” (Job 42:7) 

That is, God acknowledges that Job was right to struggle against the meaninglessness, denounce it and insistently demand redress, even if human redress was not available. The commendation of Job’s angry truth-speaking is repeated in verse 9. 

Then, almost as if the book’s editors saw a need to distract readers from what has just been said, they use the last chapter to distract from all the theological difficulties here by saying that God, who is really a good old fellow,  rewarded Job for his troubles: gave him 14,000 sheep, 6000 camels, 2000 oxen, and 1000 female donkeys. Plus ten new children. (All this data adds up to one of the least believable or persuasive “miracle stories” in the whole Bible.)

This is what I see in this entire dialectical process I’ve tried to sketch out in these messages: It starts from the good advice and assurance of success we find in Proverbs. Then it moves to the sharp challenge presented by Ecclesiastes and Job. And this entire struggle, this dialectic, is included in what biblical tradition tells us is a deposit of divine self-disclosure, or revelation. It’s part of that–many scholars say a central part of that, and I agree with them.

A greek statue of Wisdom

One reason I agree is that this tradition thereby legitimizes a condition of inner struggle and ambiguity of understanding that is very familiar in my life, and I think may be familiar to many others today as well. The message I draw from this is that these struggles, the accompanying uncertainty, and the sharp divergence of views they encompass, are included within the realm of meaning and revelation the biblical Wisdom tradition represents.

Let me try to put this another way. From the biblical perspective: 

If you have miracles and signs that make sense of your world for you, fine; 

Or if you are able, even without such signs and wonders, to maintain confidence in the understanding of life your conventional Wisdom presents you with, that’s fine too. 

But then, even if you haven’t seen any wonders, and even if you are beset by doubt and uncertainty and ambiguity and struggle as you attempt to make sense of life–yes, even this too is not beyond the reach of biblical faith and experience.

One might call these three approaches the Way of Wonders, the Way of Faith, and the Way of Wisdom.

I suggest that the Wisdom books of the Hebrew Bible suggest that reflection on our human experience, and the compression and illumination of this experience in vivid poetic language, is connected somehow to the mysterious and awesome process of divine self-disclosure.  Even Proverbs with all its glib self-confidence is not totally oblivious to this: Pr. 2:6 puts it well: “It is the Lord who gives Wisdom.” (In addition to proverbs, or to bring them alive.)  Or this familiar verse: Prov. 9:10 “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom….”  

Some people don’t like that word fear, and the Hebrew root word for “fear” could also and perhaps better be rendered as meaning “reverence for the awesomeness” of unfathomable reality, or more, simply, humility. Though, to be honest, Job reminds us that unbounded power is indeed something to be fearful of.

And the Wisdom thus discovered–even the discovery of how little ultimate understanding we really have–is part of the teaching, the shaping of our understanding of life, the “establishing” that we must do for our children, or for others in our care, and ultimately for ourselves. 

NOTE: These messages were adapted from a collection, Wisdom & Your Spiritual Journey, available in print or as an E-book on Amazon.


“The Seven Pillars of Wisdom,” a site in Lebanon.

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Categories: Blogs

The Embassy, the White House & the Bigots: Tears For Jerusalem.

Mon, 05/14/2018 - 9:58am

Matthew 23:37

 “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing. . . .”

There’s lots that’s wrong about moving the U. S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, not least the trail of dead Palestinians.   Here I’ll focus on what might seem a sideshow, but is actually crucial to the whole project: the administration’s deadly alliance with so-called “Christian Zionists,” who were the move’s loudest promoters, and who have plenty of religious bigotry to spare.

Jeffress & friend. There’s an unconfirmed rumor that the friend was asking, “Is it okay if I say, ‘just grab ’em by the Bible?'” Here I find myself again in unusual company, agreeing with Mitt Romney, who pointed up & condemned this:   NBC News: “Former Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney lashed out at the decision to have a controversial evangelical leader give a blessing at the opening of the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem Monday, calling him a “religious bigot.”

 The Senate candidate from Utah criticized the inclusion of the Rev. Robert Jeffress — the pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas who is also an an adviser to President Donald Trump. The president recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital last year.   “Robert Jeffress says, ‘You can’t be saved by being a Jew,’ and ‘Mormonism is a heresy from the pit of hell,’” Romney wrote in a tweet. “He’s said the same about Islam. Such a religious bigot should not be giving the prayer that opens the United States Embassy in Jerusalem.”  Romney is Mormon.”   Jeffress denied he was a bigot, but added that he believed Mormonism was “wrong,” and said the Southern Baptist Convention had designated it a “cult.”   “Mormonism has never been considered a part of historic Christianity. People may disagree with that view, but it’s not a view unique to me,” he said in an interview with NBC News.   COMMENT: Jeffress is, sadly, right that religious bigotry is not unique to him: lots of people share it. But there’s a difference between murderous bigotry and dissent:  after all, I happen to think there’s stuff that’s both nutty and dangerous in Mormon doctrine & theology; I also have serious doubts about various tenets in Islam, and others in some Jewish subgroups. (And did I mention my quarrels with much of so-called “Christianity”?)  Jeffress’s theology represents some of the worst of all (Speaking of “heresies from the pit of hell . . .”) and seeing him put by the White House front and center in a U.S. embassy anywhere, and especially in such a critical and hazardous spot, is way beyond belief.

Except that it’s true.

And You go, Mitt.
The death toll mounts in protests against the embassy move.  PS from the BBC:  

Mr Trump’s daughter, Ivanka, and her husband Jared Kushner, who are both senior White House advisers, joined US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan for the ceremony.

Ivanka & Mnuchin at the opening

After Ivanka Trump had unveiled the seal of the embassy, Mr Kushner said in his address: “When President Trump makes a promise he keeps it… We have shown the world that the US can be trusted. We stand with our friends and allies.”. . .

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said: “What a glorious day. Remember this moment. This is history. President Trump, by recognising history, you have made history. All of us are deeply grateful.”

A spokesman for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said on Monday: “With this step, the US administration has cancelled its role in the peace process and has insulted the world, the Palestinian people and the Arab and the Islamic nation and it has created incitement and instability.”

Arab League chief Ahmed Abul Gheit said it was “shameful to see countries participating with the US and Israel in celebrating the former’s embassy move to occupied Jerusalem in a clear and grave violation of international law”.


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Categories: Blogs

After Blowing Up The Iran Deal: Anybody Feeling a Draft?

Tue, 05/08/2018 - 11:32pm

After thinking about the remodeled “backing-up-new-Iranian-sanctions-with-War” scenario, I did some searching & quickly came across several disquieting facts:

1. Iran’s population is at least twice that of Iraq;
2. it’s also more homogenous, linguistically, culturally & especially religiously (90+% Shi’a Muslim; Iraq, 60/40 Shia vs Sunni); further,
3. Iranians tend to be quite proud of their country & culture even if they despise their government;


4. Iran’s land mass is also 3.5 times bigger than Iraq, with lots of mountains; (Iraq is mostly desert)
5. Teheran, the capital, is several hundred miles farther from the bases & seaports necessary to supply an invading force than, say, Baghdad; and —by the way:
6. Iran has a real army, a big one, rather than the pretend bunch of mutually hostile gangs that Saddam Hussein “led.”

Now, I’m no expert at grand military strategy. But considering how U. S. forces got their butts kicked in Iraq (& —oh, did I forget to mention Afghanistan? And, er, Vietnam?)

Not: Une part de gateau, non.

I figure that the war with Iran the Orange mob seems to be working up to is gonna be something other than a piece of cake.

But it will be huge.


So, what can we do?? I’m guessing that after this week, soon might be a good time for American parents of pre- & teenage boys to start digging around on the internet for dog-eared copies of such 1960s bestsellers as, 1001 Ways to Beat the Draft, to pass around & ponder until some very woke Millennial updates & uploads it.

Free Advance Excerpts:

10 Invent a time machine and go back to the 19th century.
11 Start to menstruate. (Better red than dead.)
18 Rent a motel room with a ewe.
19 Rent a motel room with a ram.
20 Say you’re crazy.
21 Say they’re crazy.
23 Marry J. Edgar Hoover.

Tehran, Iran to Montreal, Canada: 5858 miles.

(For backup, there are lots of YouTube videos for beginners on Quebec French.)

Just sayin’.
(I mean, Juste dire!)

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Categories: Blogs

The Spooks Vs. The Brass: Will This Duel Stop Haspel’s Rise?

Tue, 05/08/2018 - 7:01am

As Gina Haspel prepares to face Congress and the press tomorrow in her quest to become CIA Director, there’s a duel underway in the background.

The duel is between two letters: one from a company of former spy chiefs, endorsing her nomination. The other is from a battalion of retired generals and admirals, vehemently opposing it.

Torture is the nub of the clash. Haspel ran one of the CIA’s “black sites” in which prisoners were tortured. She also helped run the whole program, and called for destruction of videotapes of torture sessions, in defiance of court orders to preserve them.

The contrast between the two letters is remarkable, and worth examining.

The Washington Post notes today that 

“To say that she was part of this [detention and interrogation] program, from a management standpoint, and is not qualified to lead the agency, is misguided,” said John Brennan, who served as CIA director under President Barack Obama.

Former CIA Director John Brennan

Brennan joined 52 other former senior national security officials in signing a letter of support for Haspel’s nomination, calling her a “true intelligence professional who brings care, integrity and a commitment to the rule of law to her work every day.” 

The full text of the Brennan letter is here. It is relatively brief, barely 400 words. The money quote:

Ms. Haspel’s qualifications to become CIA Director match or exceed those of most candidates put forward in the Agency’s 70-year history. She has spent more than 30 years of her life quietly serving America and the CIA, routinely stepping up to handle some of the most demanding assignments around the globe. Ms. Haspel is a proven leader who inspires others and has what it takes to make tough calls in times of crisis. . . . She will speak truth to power, offering unbiased intelligence to policymakers no matter how difficult the situation. 

Throughout her distinguished career, Ms. Haspel has received numerous honors, including the Intelligence Medal of Merit, the George H.W. Bush Award for Excellence in Counterterrorism, the Donovan Award and a Presidential Rank Award, the highest award in the federal service. 

Those who have served alongside Ms. Haspel have only the utmost praise and respect for her . . . . 

“Speak truth to power?” A striking phrase. Many others who served on the ground, and have had to deal with the continuing fallout of the CIA’s torture program, have also spoken, and declared a very different kind of truth.  As the Post also reports:

But more than twice as many retired military generals signed a letter opposing Haspel. [The full text of the letter is here.] “We do not accept efforts to excuse her actions relating to torture and other unlawful abuse of detainees by offering that she was ‘just following orders,’ ” they wrote. 

And rejection of the “just following orders,” which is what the CIA case for Haspel comes down to, was just the beginning. Where the spymasters’ letter was fulsome but clipped, the generals are, not to put too fine a point on it, outraged:

We urge [Senators] to examine closely the full extent of Ms. Haspel’s involvement in the rendition, detention, and interrogation program and, should you find that she played any role in carrying out, supervising, or directing the torture or abuse of people in U.S. custody, or the destruction of evidence relating to these activities, we urge you to reject her nomination.

“Any role”? Most of Haspel’s career is still secret; but the facts of her being deep into the torture program, in numerous roles, is one of the few sets of facts even the CIA has acknowledged. And for the generals this is not a quibble, but a matter of “profound concern”: 

We are deeply troubled by the prospect of someone who appears to have been intimately involved in torture being elevated to one of the most important positions of leadership in the intelligence community.. . .

In addition, former CIA general counsel John Rizzo has stated that for some period of time a person we now know to be Ms. Haspel oversaw the CIA’s entire interrogation program—a program that was rife with mismanagement and abuse.

Moreover, the generals flatly reject the excuses & assurances by Brennan and the spymasters:

We understand that some well-respected former senior government intelligence officials have spoken highly of Ms. Haspel’s experience and long record of service to the Agency. However, we do not accept efforts to excuse her actions relating to torture and other unlawful abuse of detainees by offering that she was “just following orders,” or that shock from the 9/11 terrorist attacks should excuse illegal and unethical conduct. We did not accept the “just following orders” justification after World War II, and we should not accept it now. Waterboarding and other forms of torture or cruel and inhuman treatment are—and always have been—clearly unlawful. Individuals in the service of our country, even at the lowest levels, have a duty to refuse to carry out such actions.”

And that’s not all:

Moreover, Ms. Haspel appears to have been involved in inappropriate actions that went beyond what was authorized by Congress or senior officials in the executive branch. Public reports suggest that cases of detainee abuse she supervised or otherwise had an operational role in involved conduct even more abusive than what the discredited legal memos supported. In addition to her role in overseeing and implementing torture, Ms. Haspel also appears to have strongly advocated for and played a key role in carrying out an order to destroy 92 videotapes of individuals in U.S. custody being subjected to torture. She did so despite federal court orders requiring preservation of all records pertaining to detainee abuse, and over the objections of congressional leaders, the Director of National Intelligence, Director of Central Intelligence, two successive White House counsels, Department of Justice officials, and the vice president’s top lawyer. This disregard for lawful checks on the CIA’s power is troubling.

“Troubling,” indeed. More than that: it’s dangerous to the troops they command and the country they have sought to protect:

The torture and cruel treatment of prisoners undermines our national security by increasing the risks to our troops, hindering cooperation with allies, alienating populations whose support the United States needs in the struggle against terrorism, and providing a propaganda tool for extremists who wish to do us harm. It would send a terrible signal to confirm as the next Director of the CIA someone who was so intimately involved in this dark chapter of our nation’s history.

“A terrible signal.” The 108 signers’ names sprawl across three pages.

So there it is: The generals vs the spooks.

Will the brass will get to have their say at Haspel’s hearing?  Regardless, I hope their protest, for that is what it is, will be heard as the Senate works its will.

More about Gina Haspel & her life in the CIA is in yesterday’s post, here



The post The Spooks Vs. The Brass: Will This Duel Stop Haspel’s Rise? appeared first on A Friendly Letter.

Categories: Blogs

Urgent – Act to Stop Torturer Gina Haspel

Wed, 04/25/2018 - 11:28pm

Friends, there are many deeply disturbing things going on in Washington; it’s hard to keep up.

But here’s one I’m keeping up with, and I invite your attention:

The beaming face of torture: Gina Haspel, nominee to be CIA Director.

The nomination of longtime CIA officer Gina Haspel to be head of the CIA.

Her nomination should be stopped. Haspel is a torturer, with deep involvement in some of the most horrible abuses and crimes of the ‘War On Terror” era.

Yes, torture IS already a crime. A federal felony. We don’t need Congress to pass new laws about that. Just enforce the laws already on the books. And one big step toward such accountability would be to stop the Haspel nomination.

Time is short for action to stop Haspel’s ascent. A hearing on her nomination is slated for early May. One of those who has made the case against promoting Haspel is libertarian Senator Rand Paul. Here’s part of his argument:


“Why I’m Against Gina Haspel”
Some details may be disputed, but it remains true that Haspel ran a secret center in Thailand where prisoners were tortured.

There is no question that during her career, Haspel participated in and helped develop the program that our own government has labeled torture. Though there have been the typical suggestions that she was “simply following orders,” Glenn Carle, a former CIA interrogator, has described her as “one of the architects, designers, implementers and one of the top two managers of the [“Enhanced Interrogation Techniques” torture program] and a true believer, by all accounts, in the ‘Global War in Terror’ paradigm.”

This does not sound like someone who was simply “following orders.” This sounds like someone who was giving them, which I would argue is far worse.

Nor is it debatable that she was present in Thailand when Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri was waterboarded three times in late 2002.

Further, multiple accounts have discussed her involvement in destroying video documentation of the torture program.

Think about that for a moment. She helped destroy the very evidence of this program, and people tell us we have no reason for concern?

Direct participation in the program itself would be disqualifying enough for me, but appointing someone who also helped push for destroying evidence of that program to run one of the most powerful organizations in the world should not be acceptable to Congress.

Paul was preceded by Senator John McCain, who has spoken out against the CIA torture program many times. Here’s part of one statement:

“What might come as a surprise, not just to our enemies, but to many Americans, is how little these practices did to aid our efforts to bring 9/11 culprits to justice and to find and prevent terrorist attacks today and tomorrow. That could be a real surprise, since it contradicts the many assurances provided by intelligence officials on the record and in private that enhanced interrogation techniques were indispensable in the war against terrorism.

And I suspect the objection of those same officials to the release of this report is really focused on that disclosure – torture’s ineffectiveness – because we gave up much in the expectation that torture would make us safer. Too much.

“Obviously, we need intelligence to defeat our enemies, but we need reliable intelligence. Torture produces more misleading information than actionable intelligence. And what the advocates of harsh and cruel interrogation methods have never established is that we couldn’t have gathered as good or more reliable intelligence from using humane methods.

“The most important lead we got in the search for bin Laden came from using conventional interrogation methods. I think it is an insult to the many intelligence officers who have acquired good intelligence without hurting or degrading prisoners to assert we can’t win this war without such methods. Yes, we can and we will.

“But in the end, torture’s failure to serve its intended purpose isn’t the main reason to oppose its use. I have often said, and will always maintain, that this question isn’t about our enemies; it’s about us. It’s about who we were, who we are and who we aspire to be. It’s about how we represent ourselves to the world.

“We have made our way in this often dangerous and cruel world, not by just strictly pursuing our geopolitical interests, but by exemplifying our political values, and influencing other nations to embrace them. When we fight to defend our security we fight also for an idea, not for a tribe or a twisted interpretation of an ancient religion or for a king, but for an idea that all men are endowed by the Creator with inalienable rights.

How much safer the world would be if all nations believed the same. How much more dangerous it can become when we forget it ourselves even momentarily. . . .

Much more material, pro and con, is available online. But my view is clear: torture is a crime, she pushed for it, led it and helped conceal it. Such behavior should not be rewarded. In fact, my meme is:

Haspel should be investigated, not nominated. 

If you agree, I invite you to let Washington know, now.  You can call, write letters, FAX the Senate, show up and protest.

And my colleagues in QUIT (the Quaker Initiative to end Torture) have prepared a convenient postcard to send to Senators, the White House, the media, and other “influencers.”

Its message is succinct:

If you’d like to join this effort, I’ll send you a dozen postcards free, while supplies last. Just send me a private message or an email at chuckfager(at)aol(dot)com & tell me where to send them. (If you want 100, thats okay too, but please add $10 to help with costs.) Pass some along to others who are concerned. If you use them up, send for more.

To be sure, this is a long shot. But ten years ago, I interviewed a Swiss investigator named Dick Marty.

Dick Marty, in Ticino, Switzerland, 2008

A seemingly modest, unassuming man, Marty’s brilliant & relentless detective work had ripped the cover off the CIA’s “black sites” torture centers, and exposed the “torture taxi” flights that serviced them (many of which started in my home state of North Carolina, to our continuing shame).

He told me then that uprooting the U.S. torture program would be “a long work,” calling for “patience and determination.” He was right when he said that. He’s still right.

I agree with him about determination. 

But I have trouble with the patience part. Accountability is years overdue. Opposition to promoting a known torture chief to the top CIA job is before us. Now. Let us act.

PS. These cards are available too. Same deal.

The post Urgent – Act to Stop Torturer Gina Haspel appeared first on A Friendly Letter.

Categories: Blogs