On Being Blog
Every six weeks, we convene as a staff and talk about ideas for shows for the next two to three months. We’re never lacking in ideas, but finding knowledgeable voices that can carry an hour conversation takes some effort. One of the subjects near the top of our list is the ethics of global aid, particularly with Zimbabwe’s recent crackdown on CARE, a multi-national, non-profit organization fighting global poverty.
For me, the subject came to the forefront while reading Paul Theroux’s challenging, insightful travel account in Dark Star Safari. After serving in the Peace Corps in the 1960s, he revisits Africa and sees a starkly different and yet an eerily similar continent. He’s pretty hard on charitable aid organizations and missionaries, to be sure, and wonders — well, actually posits — whether good intentions have led to an industry that needs to sustain itself in order to carry on its business model:
“…this was the era of charity in Africa, where the business of philanthropy was paramount, studied as closely as the coffee harvest or a hydroelectric power project. Now a complex infrastructure was devoted to what had become ineradicable miseries: famine, displacement, poverty, illiteracy, AIDS, the ravages of war. Name an African problem and an agency or a charity existed to deal with it. But that did not mean a solution was produced. Charities and aid programs seemed to turn African problems into permanent conditions that were bigger and messier.”
Theroux’s idea that aid and missionary organizations might actually undercut the stability and long-term efforts of people they are trying to help is challenging. The spot of “tough love” seems to be drenched in the hard-nosed, pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps mentality that I often experienced growing up in North Dakota. I cringed initially. But, some germ made sense. Although I’m not in Africa, I face these tests while walking to work in downtown St. Paul when the same destitute man regularly asks me for five bucks. When do I become that microcosmic institution?
Where is that line and when do good intentions steal a struggling people’s identity, raid an individual’s sense of resourcefulness and pride? When do others who prosper have an obligation to intervene and help those who can’t help themselves because of forces beyond there control — political regimes, long-lasting droughts, diseases, etc.? Who are some of the wise voices you’re reading and hearing about that are immersed in this struggle that can speak personally about these situations?
Searching the term “heschel” on Flickr turned up a Heschel-Merton peace protest, some previously published photos of Heschel standing next to MLK at Selma, and a few portraits. And then there’s the image you see here, which puzzled me as I was scanning a list of thumbnails: ‘Why did somebody tag that image with the rabbi’s name?’
The answer was in the caption:
The tragedy of religion is partly due to its isolation from life,
as if God could be segregated.
Abraham Joshua Heschel
Through this brief caption a gleaning of another person’s mind. These encounters help me to see things differently, to expand my limited scope, as I search for images that encapsulate some kernel of wisdom or sensibility of what’s being discussed in a particular program. I’ve learned to stop and look rather than dismiss and move on.
Although this photo won’t make it onto the site, Markus Krisetya, the photographer, opened up another way of seeing Heschel, of finding new meaning in his writings (taken from his 1966 essay “Choose Life!”) and the graffitied bridge I pass by daily. How do you find relevance in Heschel’s words and action?
“An Ojibwe Language Society Calendar” (photo: Hanson Dates/flickr)
Working on an upcoming SOF show about endangered languages, I called a professor of Ojibwe at Bemidji State University to get recordings of Ojibwe speakers for the radio program and website. His answering machine message was delivered first in Ojibwe and then in English. Then this week I called someone who works at an Ojibwe immersion school in Wisconsin, and his answering machine message was Ojibwe only.
It was a little disorienting but also inspiring to hear the language in this modern context, especially considering that Ojibwe is one of only a handful of Native American languages now spoken in the United States and Canada that is expected to survive beyond 2050.
What is it about Bible stories? For me they can be like catchy music; I’ll get one stuck in my head and then, while I wait for the bus or cut up vegetables or fold laundry, the story will run on repeat, offering its melodies, harmonies, dissonances. These ancient stories — so full of existential drama — can become obsessions.
I’ve been thinking constantly for the past year or so about the Book of Ruth. (Read the whole book yourself here.) Naomi, her husband and sons all dead, is in mourning. She’s planning to move home to Bethlehem. She tells her newly widowed daughters-in-law to go back to their families; they can remarry in their native towns. But Ruth, Naomi’s daughter-in-law, insists on moving with Naomi back to Judah. We don’t know exactly why.
Then, Ruth makes a speech as she announces her intention to stick by Naomi, and it’s one of the most famous speeches in the Bible: “Your people shall be my people, and your God shall be my God,” she says. Ruth chooses radical commitment. She becomes a foreigner, abandons the life she knew, and moves bravely into a new one. I think about the courage that would take.
I like retellings of Bible stories too. One of my favorites is told on an episode of This American Life, “Sink or Swim.” (You can listen to it in their online audio archives. It comes in at about 44:20). In this story Noah is old and crotchety. He calls his sons “dummies.” His “old-school” work ethic demands that he teach his children right from wrong using most severe methods. God, in this story, likes Noah’s style. He chooses him, therefore, to save the animals and repopulate the earth after the flood. It’s a wild story that casts God as a big grouch.
In light of these adventures into the Bible, I appreciatively stumbled on an interesting blog over at Slate.com. Blogging the Bible is David Plotz’s analysis of “what’s really in the good book.” He spent a year making his way through the Hebrew Bible and writing about how the stories struck him. If you have any favorite stories, check out his perspective. It may give you new ideas to run through. Over and over.
We use a third-party service, Disqus, for our commenting engine on our blog. Due to some changes from our blog service (Tumblr), older comments submitted before today are not showing up on our site. We haven’t lost them though; they just aren’t reconciling with the permalink for each blog post.
So please keep the comments coming — and your suggestions for the Webby five-word acceptance speech. The new ones will display and the older comments will show up as soon as the issue’s resolved.
[UPDATE] It looks like everything is back to normal now. Please let us know if you’re experiencing any difficulty or noticed one of your comments is missing in action. Cheers.