Books September 2014
Contested Land, Contested Memory: Israel’s Jews and Arabs and the Ghosts of Catastrophe
By Jo Roberts. Dundurn, 2013. 302 pages. $24.99/paperback; $11.99/eBook.
Reviewed by Max L. Carter
Looking back on reviews I have written for Friends Journal on books about Palestine/Israel, I notice that I often refer to a statement by Israeli politician Naomi Chazan: “The tragedy of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict is that there are two narratives of the situation which are both true—but don’t meet.” Jo Roberts’s book Contested Land, Contested Memory gives depth and texture to that statement, adding historical detail to the conflicting narratives.
A trained anthropologist, lawyer, and former managing editor of the New York Catholic Worker, Roberts trains each of these lenses on the complex history which forges the memories of Jews and Palestinian Arabs—and which tragically makes the current situation as close to intractable as even a Quaker might admit. As I finished reading the book, Israel’s 2014 Operation Protective Edge had already pushed the death toll in Gaza over 1,000, with neither Israel nor Hamas showing any signs of backing down. The insights of the book as to why such carnage could be justified by both sides were on stark display.
Roberts presents two “catastrophes” that have shaped the collective memory of Jews and Palestinian Arabs: the Shoah (the Hebrew word for catastrophe, translated in English as Holocaust) and the Nakba (Arabic for catastrophe and the name given by Palestinians to the events that led to the creation of the modern state of Israel). Both experiences lead to a self-identity as a victim—and to the responses that victims often display, emotions too numerous to mention here!
Each chapter explores a different aspect of the memory each side has of events that precede the momentous year of 1948 and which flow from it. Even having spent considerable time in the region and having read more than I care to admit about Palestine/Israel, I found fascinating details revealed in Roberts’s careful journalism. Especially interesting are her personal interviews with major figures in the new historiography emerging from Israel itself, historians such as Benny Morris and Ilan Pappé. These reveal many of the myth-busting details that are sadly lacking in the “script” that too often plays out about Palestine/Israel in the popular media and Western consciousness, myths such as the “land without a people for the people without a land” and the “voluntary” abandonment of their homes by Palestinians in 1948.
As both Israel and Hamas appeared to be acting irrationally in the Gaza crisis, Roberts’s insights helped make more sense of this catastrophe: Israel’s collective memory as a people facing annihilation lends itself to using all means at its disposal to assure “never again,” and Palestinians’ collective memory as a people who also face annihilation lends itself to resisting a continuing Nakba by all means possible.
Roberts’s conclusion is that “Ultimately, the deepest healing of the wounds of this seemingly intractable conflict will come . . . through a re-imagining of the body politic, a reworking of collective memory, for both Jewish Israelis and Palestinians.” Unfortunately, at present it appears that Landrum Bolling’s oft-cited assessment is as true as Naomi Chazan’s: “Neither side is willing to give up its hope for a better past.”
But I have not read a better book than Roberts’s Contested Land, Contested Memory for understanding the competing memories of that past.
Max L. Carter is the director of Friends Center and campus ministry coordinator at Guilford College, where he also directs the Quaker Studies program. He taught in the Ramallah Friends Schools as his alternative service as a Vietnam War-era conscientious objector and returns annually to the Middle East leading work/study groups in RFS and Israeli and Palestinian peace communities. A graduate of the Earlham School of Religion and the PhD program at Temple University in American religious history, Max is a recorded Friends minister in North Carolina Yearly Meeting (FUM).
99 Tactics of Successful Tax Resistance Campaigns
By David M. Gross. Picket Line Press, 2014. 312 pages. $18.50/paperback; $7.99/eBook.
Reviewed by Tom Head
David Gross has put together a helpful compendium of tax resistance tactics. It is a work that I found stimulating and rewarding to read. I came to this book with two distinctly different parts of myself in tension with each other.
On the one hand, I am a pacifist. I was honorably discharged from the U.S. Army as a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War. Ever since that life-changing experience, I have grappled with the question of paying for war. It was one thing to remove my body from conflict, but that was only a first, small step in a lifelong commitment to peacemaking. The call to act in good conscience keeps working within me. Paying for war is clearly a form of participation in the military, and so I continue to seek ways to move away from war.
On the other hand, I am an economist. As such, I appreciate and understand that a strong society depends upon a willingness to attend to the needs we cannot meet through individual action alone. I have been dismayed at the unhealthy attitudes toward the public sector that have been so prevalent in recent years in this country. In many ways we are shirking and denigrating legitimate and desirable support of the public sector. I ask students to read Jeffrey D. Sachs’s most recent book, The Price of Civilization, the title of which is taken from a statement by Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.: “I like to pay taxes. With them I buy civilization.”
And so as I read Gross’s book, I find myself in this tension: I do like to pay taxes. A free, virtuous, and flourishing society depends upon a measure of cooperative public activity, and we should support that. And yet I do not like to pay taxes that actually undermine a free and just society, those that fuel the destruction of civilization. Sorting out which is which is an important dialogue. This book only indirectly treats that larger moral question, but what it does do very well is catalog methods for removing the support of injustice and destruction. How and when to use these tactics will depend very much on our deeper individual and collective discernment, but I found that even this catalog of action stimulates and informs the larger search for truth.
Gross speaks to all forms of tax resistance. He studies tax resistance around the world and throughout history. His primary topics are war and militarism, but he also addresses tax resistance focused on other concerns—persecution of the women’s suffrage movement, racism, colonialism, and other forms of oppression and intimidation. There is considerable attention given to Quakers, but we read also about the Amish, the Mennonites, and other religious groups. Inspiration and insight come from examining Roman-occupied Judaea, Gandhian nonviolence and the Indian independence movement, women’s suffrage movements in Great Britain and the United States, historical labor movements, poll tax resistance, the American Revolution and the Whiskey Rebellion, as well as the actions of contemporary war tax resisters.
The book concludes with a set of practical worksheets, which are also available online at the author’s website: sniggle.net/99tactics. My one complaint about the book is that, as is often the case with self-published efforts, it suffers from inadequate editing, which means that the reader encounters considerable redundancy and must cope with a table of contents and a lengthy set of endnotes which both mysteriously fail to use the chapter numbering that appears in the main body of the book, making navigation a bit cumbersome. Nonetheless, for less than $20 in print or less than $10 in electronic form, the book is a bargain for anyone wanting to do serious work on putting faith into practice in the area of tax resistance. This book and an earlier volume by Gross American Quaker War Tax Resistance (Second Edition) are both useful additions to the meetinghouse library.
Tom Head is professor of economics at George Fox University and a member of Bridge City Meeting in Portland, Ore.
The Light Within: Then and Now
By Rex Ambler. Pendle Hill Pamphlets (number 425), 2013. 34 pages. $7/pamphlet.
Reviewed by Diane Reynolds
The Light Within, writes Rex Ambler, has two meanings in modern Quakerism. In one, it is the manifestation of Jesus Christ and his Holy Spirit. In the other, it does not rely on any belief in or knowledge of Jesus Christ. Yet how can the Light be both Jesus and not Jesus?
Misunderstandings of the Inner Light, Ambler argues, date back to the publication of Robert Barclay’s An Apology for the True Christian Divinity, published in English in 1678. In it, Barclay addresses hostile outsiders, reducing the idea of the Light to a concept akin to Calvin’s conscience, an understanding of truth based on reason and the Bible. Quakers themselves, weary of persecution, came to embrace Barclay’s domesticating text, and the distinct early Quaker understanding of the Light was submerged.
Through writings of early Friends, Ambler uncovers a Light that allows us to see beyond our ego defenses to the reality that we sometimes live in a state of denial or “deceit” about our flaws. Rather than revealing general truths, the Light illuminates what we as individuals may want to hide from ourselves, as well as the “dire consequences” of our behaviors. This truth, a “source of insight” rather than a set of beliefs, set the early Quakers free from the self’s egotistical shackles.
The Light was and is a source of unity that can bring individual Friends together within Quakerism and beyond. By penetrating to a “core” of truth and rightness existing beneath a shell of pretence in others and themselves, Quakers as a group can use the Light to guide them to act effectively in the world.
This original concept of the Light provides challenges and guidance for Friends today. Much of Friends practice is still consistent with early understandings of the Light, but what contemporary Quakers might embrace is a willingness to experiment with coming to unity through “an experience that takes us deeper than thought”—a unity which challenges current individualistic ideas of “to each his own” theology. At the same time, the Light Within liberates Friends from the need to argue about beliefs. Quakers can witness to their own experience and rest secure in the knowledge that others can discover the truth within themselves.
This pamphlet is simple and powerful, and at the end contains seven discussion questions that make it ideal for group work. By stepping beyond whether the Light is Jesus or not Jesus, Ambler offers valuable insights into how the Light actually functions. Having had the experience of the Light exposing my own flaws, I would witness to the truth of what Ambler writes. From my experience, however, I would emphasize that love and a sense of safety allow one to bear unpleasant truths. The Light is love: we can see ourselves truly only when we accept that we are loved.
Diane Reynolds is a member of Stillwater Meeting in Barnesville, Ohio.
Think Like a Commoner: A Short Introduction to the Life of the Commons
By David Bollier. New Society Publishers, 2014. 180 pages. $16.95/paperback or eBook.
Reviewed by Ruah Swennerfelt
My husband and I are one of five neighboring households who live on or adjacent to a short dirt road in rural Vermont. Many years ago we decided to create an informal but structured relationship with the other households, because we cared about the land and wanted to have community. This includes eating together once a month, having fun together, and working together to care for the lands we own. The pond, the ski trails, and the shared driveway that we maintain together are a simple form of a “commons.” David Bollier, the author of Think Like a Commoner, describes the commons as “a social system for the long-term stewardship of resources that preserves shared values and community identity.”
I learned from this book that the concept of the commons has been around for many hundreds of years. Indigenous people who lived on this continent before European contact were managing the natural resources as a commons. Many of us in New England know of the “Boston Common,” a large, park-like area in the center of downtown Boston where cows belonging to many individuals once grazed, the citizens owning the land “in common.” The concept of private property was limited to those goods and resources that were necessary to meet personal needs, and everything else was common. (In some societies anything that wasn’t private property belonged to the King. The subsequent laws that created the commons facilitated taking back what rightly belonged to the people.) It’s a system that has succeeded because of the cooperative behavior of the people involved. It’s also threatened now by corporate takeover and our capitalist system. Bollier also describes the commons as “a self-organized system by which communities manage resources (both depletable and replenishable) with minimal or no reliance on the Market or State.” There is organization and there are rules, but the governance is by the people involved, not corporations or governments.
The author, through the use of fascinating—and sometimes frightening—stories and examples, helps the reader understand why the commons approach is preferable to the privatization of what was once public ownership. Examples include private, profit-making schools and hospitals, and natural resources such as water and forests. He uses the term “enclosure” to describe when private interests change the commons from an open source to a closed one. In one example he describes how research by public universities to find cures for diseases is often funded by corporations who expect a hefty return on their “contributions,” which often comes out of the pockets of those needing medications. Bollier says, “once you learn to identify the commons and understand its dynamics, it becomes quite clear that the privatization and commodification of our shared wealth is one of the great unacknowledged scandals of our time.”
This book is an excellent introduction to the commons, easily read and very engrossing. Friends need to be aware of the “enclosures” of the commons since they threaten the very testimonies we espouse such as equality, justice, and community. The recent Occupy movement and the uprising in Egypt were both supported and inspired by the Internet, a currently successful commons. The Internet still belongs to the people, though there are attempts at enclosing it for the profits of a few. Similarly, the attempt of Bechtel, a powerful corporation, to privatize the water in Bolivia was averted by an incredible movement of the people, but the struggle continues. Bollier writes, “We need to recover a world where we all receive gifts and we all have duties. This is a very important way of being human. The expansion of centralized political and market structures has tragically eclipsed our need for gifts and duties. . . . I think we need to fortify . . . the law of the commons.”
Reading the book has inspired me to be part of the struggle for reasserting the commons, to assure that our natural resources, our intellectual rights, and our governments do not become enclosed, but instead continue to belong to the people.
Ruah Swennerfelt lives in rural Vermont, tries to live gently on Earth, and is a member of Burlington (Vt.) Meeting. She is the former general secretary of Quaker Earthcare Witness.
Ecology and Religion
By John Grim and Mary Evelyn Tucker. Island Press, 2014. 170 pages. $70/hardcover; $30/paperback; $34.99/eBook.
Reviewed by Greg Moschetti
This book is part of an Island Press series entitled Foundations of Contemporary Environmental Studies. As such, it has a bit of an academic flavor to it which does not detract from its ability to hold the reader’s interest. The intent is to use case studies to show how religion and its construction of meaning through symbolism can elucidate ecological issues, and potentially influence how people from many different faith traditions and cultures can come to an understanding of the need to address climate change. Indeed, their premise is that secular approaches are insufficient to the task and that a religious, ethical approach is needed.
The authors start out by reviewing their own journey into the field of religious ecology and then reviewing just what religion might have to offer to the conversation around global climate change. They suggest a particular framework for understanding the role of religious ecology in the climate change debate, which is that it be “orienting, grounding, nurturing, and transforming.” They then go on to explicate how each of the world’s major religions informs this framework. Christianity is seen as orienting us to the cosmos. Confucianism grounds us in community. Indigenous traditions teach us the nurturing power of nature, and Hinduism shows us the capacity to transform our perspective through devotion to a deity. The book finishes with a call to build an interreligious dialogue resulting in a global ethic. The authors are quite optimistic that this will happen.
Friends will find this book interesting as one of an increasing number of perspectives emerging from the religious ecology community. It is refreshing in its premise that all religions have something important to teach us about how to motivate ourselves and others to act on global climate change, if only we listen, talk, and synthesize.
Greg Moschetti is a member of New Haven (Conn.) Meeting and attends West Brattleboro Quaker Worship Group in Brattleboro, Vt.
Reality, Grief, Hope: Three Urgent Prophetic Tasks
By Walter Brueggemann. Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2014. 179 pages. $15/paperback.
Reviewed by Brad Sheeks
Have you ever been in a disaster? If so, what did you do, or see others doing? If you haven’t, how can you prepare?
Walter Brueggemann invites us to reflect on these questions in the light of the biblical treatment of the destruction of Jerusalem 2,600 years ago, and also in the light of our modern experience of the destruction of the World Trade Center 13 years ago. He also argues that we’re all in the same boat in the face of the gathering storm of climate change disasters. It has arrived for some of us and looms on the horizon for the rest.
Brueggemann observes a similarity between the destruction of the Temple and the destruction of the World Trade towers. We are invited to test our idealism in the realistic light of facts on the ground. Second, we can find ourselves moving from denial to grief as we allow ourselves to experience loss. Third, as we struggle with despair, we can look for ways to have hope for the future.
While Brueggemann is retired from Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Ga., he continues adding to his list of over 50 books, including his current Reality, Grief, Hope: Three Urgent Prophetic Tasks. At the personal level, his earlier support of Israel’s biblical claims has developed into a call for Israel to do justice regarding the Palestinian people.
Brueggemann starts out by identifying the false ideology prior to each disaster, again drawing a parallel between the biblical Temple and the Twin Towers. Israel, as God’s chosen people, thought they wore bulletproof vests. Psalm 89 sings in praise of the lineage of King David, affirming that Israel is established forever, just like the sun and the moon. The destruction of the Temple disabused the people of their exceptionalism. Jeremiah and Hosea interpreted the destruction of the Temple as God’s punishment of Israel’s failure to be faithful to their covenant with God.
We Americans have a history of thinking we are exceptional, going back to colonial times with the Puritan image of us as a city on a hill. Among some, the belief in exceptionalism dies hard. When the Twin Towers fell, our idealist President George W. Bush told us to go out and shop. Then he started a war based on his idea of what was best for Iraq. Brueggemann points to the Tea Party as a desperate last stand among those who want to bring back the “good old days,” when the United States dominated the world with its military and economic power, and when white men were on top and only heterosexual couples could ring those wedding bells.
But facing reality is painful. Grief must be suffered. Psalm 74 is a prayer for deliverance in the midst of loss and devastation; Isaiah 49:14 is a lamentation of being forsaken and forgotten. Perhaps most powerful is the lamentation in Psalm 137 of weeping by the rivers of Babylon, unable to sing. This is naked despair.
How do we move toward hope? Brueggemann is at his best as he cites the prophets who were able to imagine and sing of a new day. In the New Testament we read in Hebrews 11:1 of the assurance of things hoped for and the conviction of things not seen. Martin Luther King Jr. was within this legacy of hope when he gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech.
Brueggemann ends by describing two competing narratives available to us today. One is the narrative of empire: a narrative by those who have an idea of the way things should be, in denial of the facts on the ground (climate change) and despairing of keeping their wealth and power when disaster strikes. The other is what he calls the “narrative of neighborliness” for those who are realistic about the gathering environmental disaster, bearing the grief of those who will suffer loss, together with hope for a future in which there is mutual aid and support. He calls on the church to engage in the narrative of neighborliness.
All of this brings us to the question at the top of this review: how can we prepare for a disaster? Yes, we can nourish neighborliness. We can have a robust faith community that offers a model for the benefit of the wider world.
Reality, Grief, Hope works as well with Friends who are familiar with the biblical story as with those who find the Old Testament difficult to follow.
Brad Sheeks is a member of Central Philadelphia (Pa.) Meeting. At 77, he still works part-time as a visiting hospice nurse. With his wife, Patricia McBee, he co-led couple enrichment retreats for many years.
The Power of Just Doing Stuff: How Local Action Can Change the World
By Rob Hopkins. Green Books/UIT Cambridge Ltd., 2013. 158 pages. $14.95/paperback; $10.99/eBook.
Reviewed by Brian Drayton
The “transition movement” started in Totnes, England, in 2006, and has since spread very widely, with more than 1,100 initiatives in more than 40 countries. This book, The Power of Just Doing Stuff, is the latest by Rob Hopkins, the permaculture designer who founded the movement and continues to write, speak, and listen to encourage and enrich it.
The transition movement, rooted in a recognition of the developing crises of climate change and peak oil, is about the renewal and empowerment of towns and other localities to renew or revive economic, cultural, and other elements of community life. It can therefore appeal to community members across the political spectrum; in the transition initiative in my area, there are participants who are climate skeptics, as well as longtime activists on issues ranging from education to homelessness to organic gardening to peace and justice. The diversity of viewpoints enables a rich exploration of values, made possible by the common commitment to a more vibrant community life.
Hopkins writes, “If we wait for governments, it’ll be too little, too late. If we act as individuals, it’ll be too little. But if we act as communities, it might just be enough, just in time. On their own, communities can’t change the world. . . . However, my experience is that this middle terrain, the bit between the little things we can do as individuals and what we expect our governments and institutions to do, is absolutely vital.”
This book is a quick, exciting, and surprisingly practical tour of the transition movement, and an introduction to its guiding vision and diversity. Stories from several continents and many initiatives make the vision concrete, and Hopkins skillfully relates principles to practice. Chapter one describes “Why We Need to Do Something”; chapter two is “Opening the Door to New Possibilities”; chapter three demonstrates “The Power of Just Getting on with It”; and chapter four is “Daring to Dream: Where We Could End Up.” The little book ends with a list of websites and references for further information or involvement.
If you’ve joined a transition initiative, this book will encourage you and your group, and strengthen your ability to tell the story and think about next steps. If transition is new to you, but you are engaged or interested by the spiritual challenges of our times, I encourage you to spend an hour with this book, and then pass it on!
Brian Drayton is a member of Weare (N.H.) Meeting.
The March on Washington: Jobs, Freedom, and the Forgotten History of Civil Rights
By William P. Jones. W.W. Norton & Company, 2013. 320 pages. $26.95/hardcover; $16.95/paperback or eBook.
Reviewed by David Etheridge
To avoid disappointment, you need to be aware that the subtitle describes the text more accurately than does the title. Discussion about the 1963 March on Washington and the planning for that event is confined mostly to the fifth of the six chapters in the book. The actual scope of the book is the working life of labor and civil rights leader Asa Philip Randolph—that is, from the teens through the ’60s of the twentieth century. I think my wife’s speculation may be right that the title was chosen mostly because the book was issued in the fiftieth anniversary year of the March.
Some journalists like to claim that their work is writing “the first draft of history.” Reading this book causes me to see that assertion as all too true. As a white teenager in the 1950s and ’60s, I certainly had the impression (based on news reports at the time) that the Civil Rights Movement began in the 1950s around the time of the U.S. Supreme Court school desegregation decisions.
As this book documents, the struggle had been underway for decades. What began in the 1950s was not the struggle itself but rather the focus of the white media and widespread white awareness of that struggle. As my stepson has mentioned to me, the American history texts he read in middle school and high school treat the Civil Rights Movement as having begun in the 1950s. These later drafts of history have simply accepted from the white media the premise that the Civil Rights Movement began in the mid ’50s.
Reading this book helped me learn how labor—after much internal struggle—joined churches and others in the Civil Rights Movement. The combination of church and labor is apparent in the career of the Quaker organizer of the 1963 march, Bayard Rustin. In the 1940s he worked extensively with American Friends Service Committee and later shifted to working more with Randolph and organized labor.
This book—like most I have read about the Civil Rights Movement—constantly reminded me how much more of an activist’s time is taken up with conflicts among allies than with opponents. The author describes how activists struggled with issues such as the proper role for white supporters, whether the fear that many whites had of African Americans should be exploited or assuaged, whether to embrace or reject Communists, and how much effort to expend in northern states.
Unlike other African American civil rights histories I have read, however, this book documents more thoroughly the role of women as leaders in the movement. In fact, it begins with a quotation from an anonymous woman in 1941 at a mass meeting chaired by Randolph urging that “we throw 50,000 Negroes around the White House . . . until we can get some action.” In addition, the author focuses on not just Rosa Parks’s role in the Montgomery Bus Boycott, but also her leadership in organizing a national effort to demand that the rapists of a young African American girl in her home town be brought to trial.
The account of Pauli Murray, a friend and contemporary of Rustin, documents that her life parallels his in many ways. She and Anna Arnold Hedgeman, another African American woman civil rights leader, were among the founders of the National Organization for Women. Others, such as Maida Springer, first demonstrated their leadership in the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union.
Contrary to one of the blurbs on the dust cover, we still don’t have “the definitive history of the 1963 March on Washington,” but this history does raise up the important contributions of labor, women, and several earlier decades of civil rights struggle that were reported in the African American media but are not found in most current narratives of civil rights history.
David Etheridge is a member of Friends Meeting of Washington (D.C.) and clerk of the Baltimore Yearly Meeting Working Group on Racism.
By Colum McCann. Random House, 2013. 305 pages. $27/hardcover; $16/paperback; $9.99/eBook.
Reviewed by Judith Favor
I yearn for writing that is transformational, and this beautifully crafted novel met my longing. Colum McCann braids together the passions of publicly acclaimed men (abolitionist and former slave Frederick Douglass, World War I pilots Jack Alcock and Teddy Brown, and peacemaker Senator George Mitchell) with the private stories of feisty fictional women. McCann brings his characters to life through exquisite prose, gifting the reader with story lines that arc across the centuries and crisscross the Atlantic, interweaving Irish and American views and values.
Memorable scenes pulse with Quaker testimonies. In 1845 Irish maid Lily Duggan crosses paths with Douglass, whose integrity and commitment to equality inspire her to escape servitude, sail to America, and nurse wounded soldiers on a Civil War battlefield. The novel follows her daughter, Emily, and granddaughter, Lottie, whose journeys mirror the progress and shape of Western history. In 1919 they are influenced by two aviators who set course for Ireland, attempting a nonstop transatlantic flight in a bomber they modified for peaceful means, a flight designed to heal the wounds of the Great War.
Much later, in 1998 Lottie encounters Senator Mitchell in Belfast as he labors to negotiate the historic Good Friday Peace Accords. Mitchell granted the author access to his inner reflections, making “1998 Para Bellum” a profoundly moving chapter, worthy of repeated readings. Mitchell’s inner light shines through McCann’s poignant portrait of the contemporary peacemaker who embodies simplicity, equality, and integrity under intense international public pressure.
TransAtlantic is not a quick read. McCann’s truthful, tender pages invite pauses for deep thinking, remembering past peacemakers and imagining a more simple, just, and equitable future. There is so much goodwill, humor, and pure life force in every chapter that this book will lift the spirit of Friends and meet the hunger for transformational fiction.
Judith Favor is a member of Claremont (Calif.) Meeting. Literary fiction seeded with Friends testimonies feeds her hungry soul.
Correction: In the print version, David Etheridge’s review of The March on Washington, originally states that Pauli Murray’s account documented that Bayard Rustin’s life paralleled Rosa Parks’s; it actually paralleled Murray’s.