Sunday, June 28, 2009


My friend Pingting noting my lack of posting here wonder if I got lost in the garden. I have been busy in the garden the last few months, but I've also been writing elsewhere. One of those places is which is a social network I like. grew out of the Omidyar Network's experiment with social network sites to help people organize to do good. That experiment closed and Ned uses the coding of the old site. There are a few hold-overs from the Onet days there too.

I like having pages of things I'm thinking about online. My thoughts sort of go around in circles and it's nice to have pages to remind me where I was when I last took up one topic or another. I'm quite forgetful, so I also like having access to old links. These sorts of purposes work against other people engaging with what I put up. In discussion forums people expect others to say more or less on topic. Often my experience at a place like is to be thinking about multiple threads so my comments tend to blend topics. This can be very annoying to others. But people sharing a history together, even online, has its advantages; among them is that some people are used to me and my digressions.

Recently at a German-Palestinian national introduced a project he's embarking on. By the way the link is to a Page at WiserEarth another social networking site like where the purpose is to connect people together for positive action. Al Saad is new to, so I didn't want to leave one of my rambling missives on his thread, for fear of putting him off, nevertheless his project sent my mind reeling in many directions.

Al Saad after living in Germany for the last twenty years plans to return to Palestine to help catalyze the creation of a holistic green economy there. I've noticed that Al Saad mentions not infrequently that English is not his home language. I've also noticed that all of the pages he's put up in English are clear. So if you're interested to find out more about his efforts, don't let the English be a reason not to. Wael Al Saad is using online social media to connect to others, so there are plenty of ways to follow and interact with him. I think the WiserEarth page is the best place to start.

I think in stories and I think most people do. Something that stories do is to establish that something is part of a whole and meanings aren't just personal, but created by groups. When I encountered Al Saad's project two different sets of stories started spinning: Stories about Palestine. And Stories about creating a green economy.

The subject of a green economy is one that dominates the threads at My friend Linda Nowakowski introduced me to Buddhist Economics. Nowakowski is not Buddhist, but she had been teaching business related courses in Thailand for many years. I've heard to half-jokingly say that her mission is to take the Buddhist out of Buddhist economics. By that I think she means finding ways to relate the really good ideas contained in Buddhist economics to fellow westerners. The term Buddhist economics is related to E. F. Schumacher who wrote the popular seventies book Small Is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered. Schumacher's ideas are still current, not the least of the reasons for that is the work of the E. F. Schumacher Society, which has labored since 1980 to create and promote strong local economies.

Schumacher coined the term Buddhist economics, but it wasn't coming out of deep scholarship about Buddhist theology. Indeed, Schumacher himself was a late convert to Roman Catholicism. And his interest in that general direction came from time spent in India in the 1950's where he developed a keen interest in Gandhian economics. Thailand has a long Buddhist tradition, so the emergent schools of Buddhist economics there. There is a wonderful online resource Buddhist Economics by Buddhist monk Phrabhavanaviriyakhun. Even in Thailand, Buddhist economics remains part of heterodox economic thinking, nevertheless it is part of economic discussion there.

Buddhist economics interests me in large part because it turns thinking about economics towards thinking about the stories we use to make sense of things. There are plenty of posts online of scientist ruminating about religion. I'm sure that thinking scientifically is a very useful invention. My problem with the notion that people should give up on religion and take up science, or essays something like that, has not so much to do with science as it does with how I believe people think: We think in stories. The method of science is to create new knowledge by testing propositions. Yet people need to understand the world as part of a whole and religious stories create a foundation for most people. What's more because stories are socially constructed and ubiquitous in our everyday lives most of the time we don't explicitly think about the stories explicitly. People today confront great challenges. To name just a couple there's the twin challenge of peak oil and climate change cause by among other things carbon in the atmosphere from burning fossil fuels.

I'll be the first to admit that my recent writing at this blogs--sparse as it is--is quite awful. It doesn't hold up. I think it's part of wrestling with how we as people know. I'm convinced by science, but the stories remain. So I'm now, and have been clumsily trying to figure out some consilience between the two realms.

I do spend a lot of my time gardening. It's a bit embarrassing even with all the effort my garden looks chaotic. Some of my friends wonder why I spend so much time on flowers; Why not stuff you can eat? Part of the reason for flowers is simply serendipitous. There were areas of the property that were hard to maintain and growing stuff there seemed the easiest thing to do. I have had a long interest in organic gardening, and certainly have grown food over the years. I am also interested in permaculture. Permaculture agricultural techniques mimic natural ecologies. But permaculture is not only about growing things, it's also about culture. Part of the allure of permaculture is the sense that it's easy. There are tales of people growing all they need to live with just a few hours of labor a day. I don't really think such stories are apocryphal, but I do think it's hard work to invent and get systems like that up and running.

Agriculture with fields of one crop in neat rows mimics what happens after a fire or a flood when a more complex ecosystem is disrupted. Such monocultures aren't really sustainable over a long time. And of course monocultures are very vulnerable to being wiped out by pests and the weather. Agriculture is hard risky work and over the 10,000 years or so people have been practicing, we've come up with clever ways to deal with the risks and downsides. Permaculture seeks to make growing systems that are more durable and resilient and yet still productive. Wonderful work is being done in this direction and I'm all for it. In a way my flower beds allow me an opportunity to explore and learn about this type of growing.

Something I spend too much time on is mowing grass. I would like to move towards much less of that. But my elderly father owns this property and I'm not going to change the stories of grass in his mind. He's also got very much of a farmer's idea of how growing food is done. That's good and I've learned much from him. But to some extent his vegetable garden represents a bunch of chores I don't particularly like. In particular, I just don't get his fascination with tilling the ground so much. Anyhow, the reason I do some of my gardening activities has to do with stories. These sorts of stories are along the lines of: That's how it's done. That's what they say. Mostly we never go into the whys of neatly sheared grass or denuding the soil to grow things.

Wael Al Saad's ideas for Palestine are closely related to permaculture ideas of mimicking complex ecosystems not just in agriculture, but also in business enterprises. So part of the challenge is to find ways for people to hear these new stories without the old stories of "They say" and "That's the way it is done" precluding them.

Palestine is an ancient and holy land and the religious and political stories often work against collaborative approaches to solving problems. Indeed one of the first thoughts that popped into my head--not thoughts really--were maps and pictures of the area from a book of Children's Bible stories I had as a child. Somehow in my mind these images were yellow from age, even though I haven't seen the book in probably forty years and I have no idea whether the pages have actually yellowed. That was a big clue to me that some of my stories of Palestine are tired stereotypes. There are always real pitfalls to stereotypes, and the perceived affection for the land from childhood acculturation may be a serious pitfall. In any case thought were running as I read some of the materials Al Saad has posted.

I've become really fond of the Web site Religious Dispatches. A couple of recent articles are interesting in re stories about Palestine. The first is more obviously connected than the second, Time for Jews to Abandon the Old Foundation Myth of Israel? by Ira Chernus. It's worth reading the whole article. Chernus in part of the piece talks about the work of Brit Tezedek v'Shalom, an American peace and justice organization. The group addresses head on the foundational myths of modern Israel and explores new foundations as a way towards peace.

The second article is Disco-Reggae at Abu Ghraib: Music, the Bible and Torture. Author Erin Runions explores the question:
What does it mean when a country that likes to proclaim itself a defender of freedom plays a song about liberation to people it is torturing?
The essay perhaps isn't directly related to Palestine or Wael Al Saad's project, but is related to the foundational myths of the USA.

The 2000 presidential election in the United States was not settled immediately, so there was a period for debate. I did not vote for G. W. Bush, because he seemed quite frightening to me. At a party shortly after the election--I think, it could have been just after 9/11--an old acquaintance lit into me about my raising concerns about Bush's millenarian beliefs. I think part of the ferocity of his reaction was the sense that in making it I was being disingenuous. I was sincere about my concerns, so as the administration proceeded I was attuned to events premised on such thinking. Nonetheless even now I'm startled by some revelations of what happened dribble out. Gentleman's Quarterly's slideshow of Pentagon intelligence briefs sent to President Bush in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq surprised me. As did the fact that Bush told France’s President Jacques Chirac:
This confrontation is willed by God, who wants to use this conflict to erase his people’s enemies before a New Age begins.
I'm not sure why I'm surprised, but the surprise is related to the cognitive dissonance that the sordid facts of torture under my flag provoke.

The "Disco-Reggae" song in Runions' piece is Rivers of Babylon (YouTube) by Boney M. Years ago I was entertaining two of my aunts with a trip to the Oakland neighborhood of Pittsburgh. We stopped to eat at the "Dirty O" a hot dog shop. The real name is the Original Hot Dog Shop, but the "Dirty O" gives hint that the place is slightly dangerous. I avoided sitting upstairs near the bar, but was still worried a little about the whole idea of eating there. The hot dogs and especially the French fries are great, so my aunties were enjoying it. Over the juke box the original Melodians rendition of "River's of Babylon" came on. One of my aunts heard "Zion" in the song and said that the song is why a grandchild is named Zion. I mentioned for the edification of the other aunt, who knows her Bible, that it was a psalm put to music--it's psalm 137. Runions points out the irony of forcing an Iraqi POW to listen to loud repetitious playings of the song:
When US interrogators chose songs with references to Babylon linking Iraq and ancient Babylon, they were also tapping into a lengthy apocalyptic tradition in which Babylon becomes a mythical figure of evil; the biblical account of Babylon conquering Judah, exiling the people of Israel, and destroying the temple has long been read as part of an enduring spiritual struggle. In the United States, Babylon is often used to represent what the nation opposes.

Yet at Abu Ghraib, the allegory of “Rivers of Babylon” works uneasily, contradictorily. In the usual pattern of apocalyptic and national biblical interpretation we would expect the ancient Israelite captives to represent the United States, under threat by Babylon. But in this case, it is the Iraqi (“Babylonian”) detainees weeping by the waters of Babylon, while US soldiers are the cruel captors.
Reason is very important to finding a way out of the mess humanity faces today, but reason alone seem insufficient. We also must become more aware of the stories which guide our lives and share new stories. Doing that is much easier said than done!

In thinking about the thread at about Wael Al Saad's efforts to create green economies in Palestine, that's the point I wanted to make. But it took my roundabout rambling to come to the point. I'm still not sure what to write in thread because the focus is on "practical" issues. Mostly it seems raising the topic of stories seems to be a trivial concern: just stories. Still I'm convinced stories motivate much of what we do. Stories , what "they say" are fundamental to why I mow so much grass and do a hundred other things in my daily life. Stories animate our economies and determine the shape of markets. Stories lay behind why Americans torture.

Theologian Walter Wink in an essay Facing the Myth of Redemptive Violence wrote:
This Myth of Redemptive Violence is the real myth of the modern world. It, and not Judaism or Christianity or Islam, is the dominant religion in our society today.
There surely are peacemakers who are atheist and agnostic; just as surely there are religious peacemakers. Engagement across this divide of differing perspectives is a daunting challenge. Still the importance of working towards more peaceful coexistence is so important to be motivating. And to me it seems that taking stories seriously is an essential element in building such bridges. All of us are influenced in what we do do by stories. It is essential that we engage them.


Catalyst said...

Loved reading this! John Powers at his clearest, most discursive, and inventively paper-hatted best!

The 27th Comrade said...

I think I'm liking Religion Dispatches. I'll wait a while to make my mind up about it.
As it were, I'm studying theology right now (nothing formal, of course - it's all my autodidactic stuff as always).
When I return to blogging, there should be a lot of "God-stuff" to make us all the lovely angry bunch we are supposed to be. :o)

The 27th Comrade said...

This link you put, The Myth of Redemptive Violence kisses lightly on the lips of the ideas of René Girard, viz., mimetic desire and the violent nature of religion (see, for example, the pervasiveness of sacrifice, usually living sacrifice, and often living human sacrifice, and the Christian depiction of Jesus as "killed for our sins").

While I think I see what appear to be holes in the fundamentals of Girard's mimetic desire explanation, I find it very interesting nonetheless.
And this article has been of the same bosom. Interesting.

John Powers said...

The 27th Comrade points to Rene Girard. I've not read enough of either to understand the various connections.

From online sources my impression is that Girard is somehow more conventionally religious than Wink, and yet Wink is the theologian. Girard it seems has more currency among secular academic disciplines. Wink and his trilogy on power approaches the study using more conventional theological approaches and it seems his work remains more in the academic theology domain.

Girard has the mechanism of memetics. And that theory gets a boost from the discovery of mirror neurons. But Wink makes a case against the domination systems. The theoretical mechanism is very important, but Wink has much to say about day to day living.

Not being such a scholar Wink's religious approach seems more direct than Girard's. I follow Girard until it comes to how Christ upends the scapegoat system. Wink gives me a story about how Jesus taught resistance. Wink's telling of stories are different from familiar interpretations, but very accessible.

Girard seems more about Christ and Wink more about Jesus. For a heathen like me Jesus seems easier to get.

The 27th Comrade said...

I've not read much of Wink (only that article, unless by huge accident).
I hadn't seen Girard as saying that Jesus upended the scapegoat system. I think he looks at it as the same-old-same-old of human religion: someone gets violence, usually death, and is treated as a scapegoat, to clear guilt.

I find Girard to be more-religious-sounding (more of a mystic) than Wink, yes. I think theologians (in academia) tend to want to present themselves as detached and therefore unbiased, projecting themselves as clinically-precise, with no emotion, et cetera. As a result, they are fucking boring, and I did sniff some of that in Wink's article. But it was nice! :o)

Me, I think Girard is going to suffer what Darwin suffered: people are going to take his theory and make it look as though it is a refutation of religion. People get too excited about discovering "naturalistic origins" of things that are otherwise mystical, so that they can shake off yet another need (or expectation) to believe in God.
My biggest failing, in both cases, would be not only resisting such an interpretation of the theories, but also failing to believe either theory to be true.

For one like me, who has no religion, either of "Jesus" and "Christ" seems wrong, having been colonised by other belief systems. For now, I shall keep to calling Him the Nazarene.
I feel terrible about how the core of His teaching has been raped and neglected. I honestly believe that the Nazarene, taken as He was, and as His earlier followers took Him, can give redemption to people. But, unfortunately, He was so against religion, yet He has been forever associated with religion, so that it has become close-to-impossible to ever see Him as He is.

I've loaded some pages to read about Wink's take on Jesus and Non-Violent resistance. :o)

John Powers said...

I really like an essay by Wink Beyond Just War and Pacifism: Jesus' Nonviolent Way