Wei Jingshen, the Chinese dissident who was imprisoned for being a supporter of the Democracy Movement in that country and held under torturous conditions for almost 18 years before finally being released last November - in significant part because of the work of Human Rights Watch - put into words a fact that it would do us all good to remember.
"I have learned many things in prison, but the most important thing is that for a human being, there is no difficulty that cannot be overcome. You just have to rely on yourself and you can get through anything."
And one of America's great authors of fiction gave us a passage, in one of his lesser-known works, that speaks to what I want to point out today.
"Where does discontent start? You are warm enough, but you shiver. You are fed, yet hunger gnaws you. You have been loved, but your yearning wanders in new fields. And to prod all these there's time, the Bastard Time. The end of life is now not so terribly far away -- you can see the finish line when you come into the stretch -- and your mind says, "Have I worked enough? Have I eaten enough? Have I loved enough?" All of these, of course, are the foundation of man's greatest curse, and perhaps his greatest glory. "What has my life meant so far and what can it mean in the time left to me?" And now we're coming to the wicked, poisoned dart:
"What have I contributed to the Great Ledger? What am I worth?" And this isn't vanity or ambition. Men seem to be born with a debt they can never pay no matter how hard they try. It piles up ahead of them. Man owes something to man. If he ignores his debt it poisons him, and if he tries to make payments the debt only increases and the quality of his gift is the measure of the man."
"Sweet Thurday" by John Steinbeck
If the woman among us will forgive the sexism and have the grace to grant Mr. Steinbeck the presumption that he was talking about mankind, or better "humankind", perhaps it gives us all something to think about.
"What has my life meant so far and what can it mean in the time left to me?" "What have I contributed to the Great Ledger?"
I was asked here this evening to talk about volunteerism. The idea being that in spite of the fact that you're all here already showing your support for the Red Cross and its good work, perhaps people need to better understand the reason for - and the personal value associated with - putting oneself out for the benefit for another.
Well, I think those things are pretty self-evident, but I also realize they're often forgotten in the bustle that encompasses out lives, so I'm happy to speak to the queston, but I'd like to broaden the focus just a bit, if you don't mind, into the area Steinbeck raises. "What has my life meant so far and what can it mean in the time left to me?" "What have I contributed to the Great Ledger?" I'm known, at least by some, as a himan rights activist. I chair a division of an international human rights organization and preside over the board of a state-wide one. And the work of these organizations, while dissimilar in part from the work done by the Red Cross, is born from the same premise - that being that our fellow human beings have an innate value and an inherent dignity which must be recognized. If we intend to live up to our potential as people, as a nation, I think we have to ask ourselves periodically about our contribution to the Great Ledger and remind ourselves that there is more that must be paid heed than simply our personal comfort or the economic indicators or the corporate bottom line.
So while we all understand on some level the need to support the Red Cross' efforts to help our neighbors or fellow citizens in time of emergency, I find it helps to expand our thinking to include those whose lives are always in an emergency.
Two days ago I was at an event for a group of attorneys in Los Angeles who work in the inner city. They represent people who live in slum conditions, helping them sue for their rights - and, I think, dignity - against slumlords who exploit them horrifically. A quote from one of the young children they had helped was used to make their point. "Mommy," he said, "does this mean we don't have to live in the rat house any more?" That conveys a clear, simple, easily understandable message. No one - least of all a child - should have to live among rats. But I asked them to consider another child, as well. Not the one who tugs at our heartstrings, but the child from the same set of circumstances who says, instead, "Mommy, I'm going to find the people who made you live like this and make them regret it."
At the risk of making you somewhat uncomfortable, let me tell you a story about a man who lived here in your state until three years ago this month.
In May of 1995, Girvies Davis was executed in Illinois. Fifteen years earlier, while in prison for a robbery, then 20-year-old Girvies Davis was said to have handed over to police a hand-written confession to an unsolved murder. He was immediately taken from his cell at 11 PM and driven around to refresh his memory. At the end of this ride, at about 4:30 AM, Girvies Davis put his name to another confession, this one to 11 more crimes, 9 of them murders.
Subsequently convicted of four of the murders, Davis spent those years in prison, filed a number of unsuccessful appeals and was executed after being denied clemency by Governor Edgar. Not many people noticed. And among the things they didn't notice was that Girvies Davis denied having written or signed the original confession. He confessed to the other crimes, all right, because, he said, the midnight ride was for the police to tell him what else he had done and to give him the choice of confessing or running. Most also didn't notice that Girvies Davis had brain damage from a childhood accident and an IQ bordering on mental retardation. What they also didn't know, is that Girvies Davis was illiterate.
Well, what's that got to do with anything? I tell you the story because it happened here in your state three years ago this month, because I was involved in the unsuccessful effort to stop his execution, and because though Girvies Davis is dead, there are others like him whose situations, even though these are not victims of fire, famine or flood, deserve more attention than they are getting.
Without going into the particulars, let me suggest you look at the case of a man named Aaron Patterson who is on death row in your state, and whose mother may be here with us tonight. I won't go on about his case, but those who might be interested can certainly find out more from Steve Mills of the Chicago Tribune.
What has my life meant so far and what can it mean in the time left to me? And what have I contributed to the Great Ledger?
In order to give that question some resonance, I want to take you rather far afield. I find that sometimes it helps to look away and then back. Sometimes a new perspective helps us know that important values one hears about less and less today, values like inclusiveness, compassion and hope, are urgent necessities for the successful continuation and growth, indeed, perhaps the continued existence of our society.
"We are all 'Hibakusha'". The word Hibakusha means "downwinders" and refers to those who were not caught in the initial atomic blast at Hiroshima but, because of having been downwind, were nevertheless victims of the radioactive fallout. The phrase, "We are all Hibakusha", opens the definition in a metaphysical way to include all of us. One way or another, through direct complicity, sympathetic understanding or as a function of an ineffable human interconnection, we are all at the effect of that horrific act.
The idea that we are all Hibakusha is emblematic, for me, of the sad fact that we too often allow ourselves to fall into the trap of thinking that we are not connected - until an event or set of circumstances - a flood, a fire, a murder - slaps us back to the awareness of the delicacy of our situation here, the impermanence, the mutability of life.
Clarence Darrow once observed, "There is in every man that divine spark that makes him reach upward for something higher and better than anything he has ever known." That is a potent description of the presence and irrepressibility of the human spirit - interesting from a self-professed atheist - one worth considering in difficult times.
As was suggested, I do some work on behalf of refugees and in support of human rights in the world. Let me offer you a few snapshots:
- El Salvador - Man in prison
- Chile - Woman in dark room
- Bosnia - Dr., concentration camp - men tethered in circle
What these people all have in common, I believe, is a fundamental understanding of the value and dignity inherent in their existence, in the commonality of their simply humanity, in the beauty, energy and possibility that comes with life on this earth. And from that they derive a power that is indomitable, that allows them to stand in the face of apparently overwhelming opposition. All of these individuals learned, through incredibly difficult personal experience, that by putting themselves out in the service of others they become more. That is their contribution to the Great Ledger. That is their measure of themselves as people.
On the other side of the Ledger, a couple of years ago I was in Rwanda, in Central Africa, where a genocidal war had been fought just months earlier. While the civilized world averted its eyes, people were killed by the thousands in a bloodletting the ferocity and scope if which are incomprehensible to most of us. 500,000 to 1,000,000 human beings, mostly of the minority Tutsi tribe, died in a period of three months. Mass slaughters took place all over the country in a carefully planned and well executed campaign to assert control over the majority Hutu population by entangling them in an horrific act of cruelty from which there could be no turning back.
An area specifically chosen for the slaughters was the church. Rwanda was at the time 80% Catholic. The chief means of mass communication in Rwanda is the radio and through a diabolically clever propaganda campaign, as the murderers were inspired to kill, the intended victims were deceived into gathering in the churches by the promise that they would there be granted asylum. Once gathered they were slaughtered by the thousands.
The new Rwandan Government, left with the job of cleaning up the awful mess in the countryside, made the decision to leave a couple of the churches as they were found so that those who came after could see for themselves what had happened. After visiting one, the Church at Ntarama, I sat in my room in the middle of the night, unable to sleep, and wrote the following:
Rwanda - The Church at Ntarama
Everything I believe was challenged by the infernal tableau displayed in this place. Though the three buildings and the yard between them were all so full of remains that one had to tread carefully, the chapel somehow presented the most soul-bruising image, probably because one clings to the hope that it does represent on some level the salvation, the deliverance from evil that these poor slaughtered wretches were seeking.
Piles of bones, the outline of the body they once supported still defined by the ragged remnants of their clothing, lay where they came to rest, tossed, strewn about by the force of the blast, the bullet, the thrust of the spear, blow of the club, swipe of the machete. Again and again and again the machete.
Books, canes, toys, purses, thermos bottles, shreds of the last things they held - those which their murderers left behind - punctuate the sentences of death written by these heaps of what were once vital beings.
The air, suffused with a thick, hideously sweet, cloying, web-like quality, is almost impossible to breathe. It is as if, having stepped into a charnel house, a human abattoir, I'm caught between here and somewhere else, between this dimension and another, and to bring this horror into my nose, mouth, lungs, is to invite in corruption.
This holy place, and it clearly was that to those who sought refuge here, is now mute testimony to the unholy. What moves here, what this intruder can see and hear, are the roaches, lizards and others that find their sustenance in the leavings. But what exists here, what insists that it be heard, is the faint echo of the shrieks and moans of the dying as they compete with the grunts and exclamations of those who did this terrible work; the delicate puff of air from a hand reaching out, fingers curling in despair; the hiss of the blade on its downward path; the final sigh of release from those who expected more.
If there is in man that divine spark, it has here been crushed, spat upon, reviled, denied. Has it been extinguished? Can it be? Will we allow it to be?
As I'm sure you understand, it was awful. Not something anyone should have to see - or hear about- or certainly experience. But like death row in America, it's there, and because it is, it's my belief that we need to hear about it, to know about it. And, more important, understand it. In this case, the perpetrators of these massacres were in large part members of a youth organization called the "interahamwe". Males and females ranging in age from about 10 or 12 to their early 20s, without work and with little education, the interahamwe was the tool of an extremist faction of Hutus that controlled the government and had been the objects of a special education, an on-going campaign of virulent anti-Tutsi propaganda, for years.
Asked afterward how she could take part in the slaughter of innocents, people who had recently been her neighbors, one young woman answered, "I didn't really kill anybody. I just finished them off." Another said, "I wasn't part of the killing. I just killed children."
Several decades ago, Mohandas K. Ghandi articulated what he called the seven social sins, one of which was "education without character."
Education can be used for many purposes. "Education without character," the simple feeding in of selective information, can result in people being manipulated for purposes of evil, whether active or passive. There is a responsibility implicit in the exchange of information, the process of education, and the responsibility belongs to each of us. We are all Hibakusha.
You see, unless we believe in something, unless we have some awareness of a Great Ledger, the purveyors of information, whoever they are, the controllers of the dialogue, can become the embodiment of truth.
For us, it seems to me, the lesson that must be learned from Rwanda is not that Africans are primitive savages of some lower order capable of bestial behavior, but rather that any human being, with limited life experience and even more limited education, is capable of being directed by accepted authority into behaviors that, on reflection, are shockingly inhumane.
Now remove the cultural trappings that describe the situation in Rwanda and replace them with more familiar ones and you can have a scenario wherein a man or men are moved to the belief that the detonation of an explosive device at the Federal Building in Oklahoma City, creating the gutwrenching carnage that shocked, enraged and confused America, is a necessary, appropriate, and in some twisted way productive, act.
And it's not only Oklahoma City. When we hear the fear-inspired rhetoric in this country, denouncing and demonizing the target of the moment - be it a supposedly bloodthirsty killer who eats children for breakfast or a principled judge whose belief in equal justice won't allow him to pander to the politically popular line - it becomes confusing. We have to remind ourselves that the purpose of this demonization process is to stop us from thinking; to manipulate our most base emotions. To make us followers. I listen to the lunacy of self-described "militia" leaders intoxicated with the power of their own paranoid ramblings - or crowds of people outside prisons at the time of an execution in a state of drunken revelry shouting "Fry the Nigger!" or, most recently, "Kill Karla Faye!" - and wonder if we aren't witnessing the development of our own version of the interahamwe - the thoughtless mob.
How can this happen? It happens because people, without a sense of themselves, without a belief in their own value, without a place to stand, are subject to the ravages of fear.
And, given the ethical collapse so sadly evident on all sides of the social and political spectrum, who can blame them? Watching professional athletes at the peak of their abilities, wealthy beyond their dreams, behave like unthinking brutes; watching enormously successful businesspeople trampling others in pursuit of more and more of the almighty dollar; seeing policemen and women losing their way in a whirlpool of money, dope and corruption; listening to religious leaders wallow in self-righteous condemnation of others and reading of political professionals with no goal in sight beyond self-promotion, it is no wonder that people often feel adrift and the young search in vain for models of appropriate behavior.
And as they search, add to the mix the stealthy phenomenon of media exploitation, not of violence but of all human frailty, for its own competitive and economic ends and you have built the perfect trap for those who have allowed themselves to believe that the information they're getting through the media and elsewhere is right, good, important and appropriate.
In fact, Dr. George Gerbner of the Annenberg School, studying the media and its impact on out society, describes what he calls the "dangerous world syndrome", in which we, the recipients of all of the overwhelming and frightening messages put out by the media, begin to perceive the world as an even more dangerous place than it actually is, and because of this misperception begin to behave as though it is what we perceive it to be, arming ourselves, building fortresses, lashing out at others, and creating the very world we fear.
This climate of fear that is created, and its cynical manipulation by pretenders to power, has given rise to the monstrosities of "three-strikes-and-you're-out" - a death row populated with juveniles, minorities, the mentally retarded and brain-damaged, victims of abuse, the innocent and those who cannot afford a defense - it's given us a re-segregated society - inner city violence - anger toward the homeless and impoverished - nativist and other anti-immigrant manifestations - anti-gay legislation - and all the many separatist, exclusivist policies that abound today.
It is, though far more sophisticated, the dynamic that taught those frightened, ignorant kids in the Interahamwe to kill their neighbors.
Because of these clever, manipulative, power-seekers, these honeyed voices, many around us lose their balance and grasp at easy-appearing, quick-fix solutions. They lose much of a sense of their own value, certainly that of others and, with it they lose the courage to love. And then are well on their way to becoming the Interahamwe.
And how do we stop this downward spiral? Well, I suggest we look inside and ask ourselves those questions, "What has my life meant so far and what can it mean in the time left to me? What have I contributed to the Great Ledger?" Remind ourselves who we are and what we believe in. Listen critically and denounce demagoguery wherever and whenever it appears. Look for guidance in the principles we know and trust, even though rusted and worn by lip service and misuse, and anchor ourselves in those beliefs and stand for what is higher and better, knowing the answer is not fear but love; not exclusivity, but inclusivity. Remember that we are all Hibakusha.
And when the cynics deride this as naivete or maudlin nonsense we turn for help to those who have walked these perilous paths before us:
Viktor Frankl, a psychiatrist who survived Auschwitz, in his book, "Man's Search for Meaning", says "...human life, under any circumstances, never ceases to have a meaning." In that damnable place he learned that "...love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire. ...the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: the salvation of man is through love and in love."
Susan Griffin, in "A Chorus of Stones", writes of coming to grips with her own history of childhood abuse and the discoveries she has made along the way.
"It is said that the close study of stone will reveal traces from fires suffered thousands of years ago... I am beginning to believe that we know everything, that all history, including the history of each family, is part of us, such that, when we hear any secret revealed, a secret about a grandfather, or an uncle, or a secret about the battle of Dresden in 1945, our lives are made suddenly clearer to us, as the unnatural heaviness of unspoken truth is dispersed. For perhaps we are like stones; our own history and the history of the world embedded in us, we hold a sorrow deep within and cannot weep until that history is sung."
Jim Wallis, a minister and founder of the Sojourner Community, talks of the possibility created by hope. He says, "Hope is the very dynamic of history. Hope is the engine of change ... the energy of transformation ... the door from one reality to another."
"Hope unbelieved", Wallis says, "is always considered nonsense. But hope believed is history in the process of being changed... The nonsense of slave songs in ... Mississippi became the hope that let the oppressed go free. The nonsense of a bus boycott in Montgomery ... became the hope that transformed a nation. The nonsense of women's meetings became the hope that brought suffrage and a mighty movement that demands gender equality. The nonsense of the uneducated, the unsophisticated, 'the rabble', became the hope that creates industrial unions, farmworker cooperatives, campesino collectives..."
The nonsense of those in a death camp believing they could survive became the hope of the human rights movement.
The nonsense of singing the histories of the abused, the neglected, the misshapen, the dysfunctional, the special, becomes the hope that rescues, resuscitates and resurrects pure human energy that has been trapped, ignored or discarded.
"Hope is believing in spite of the evidence and watching the evidence change."
So it is you to whom the world looks - to whom the Red Cross looks - to whom the children look - to speak the unspoken truth - to sing the histories - to think of the Great Ledger - to remember we are all Hibakusha - to find the courage to love - and to make safe the way for hope.