Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Stop Destroying Women

Almost ten years ago, I had the privilege of working with the event production company that coordinated a special international video conference at the United Nations. It was sponsored by UNIFEM, the UN agency devoted to women’s issues around the world. It was the first such conference of its scope and status exclusively about the many forms of violence against women and girls, and the first to be held in the UN’s majestic General Assembly.

Hundreds of women attended in New York and thousands more at participating sites on every continent. Political celebrities and brave survivors spoke, live or via video messages. They talked about honor killings, rape as a tactic of war and terror, sexual slavery, female infanticide, suicide, genital mutilation, and the societal ingredients that facilitate these behaviors: longstanding social/political conflicts, poverty, lack of opportunities for education, and a lack of access to contraceptives, abortion and health care in general.

The conference was a great success, which is to say it generated a lot of attention in the circles of “civil society” (the UN’s core audience of non-profit charities and non-governmental social service organizations). But as far as attention by the mainstream media was concerned, it didn’t even raise a blip on their radar.

So it’s not particularly surprising that women in virtually every country on Earth, but most especially in countries twisted by war and destitution, are increasingly the victims of the most vicious kinds of brutality, the sort that when you hear about it is simultaneously unimaginable and unforgettable. Man’s capacity (and I do mean man) for indescribably sadistic violence against women is demonically ingenious and apparently boundless.

Against this backdrop, I draw your attention to an article by Jeffrey Gettleman that appeared in the 10/8/07 New York Times, “Rape Epidemic Raises Trauma of Congo War.” I beg you to click on this link and read it:


As this article explains, the thousands of female victims range in age from three to 75. Many of the perpetrators are former members of Hutu militia forces who fled Rwanda in the 90s after torturing and murdering 800,000 Tutsis. The rest are home-grown forces known as Mai-Mai, who, armed to the teeth, stalk the countryside. The 17,000 UN Peacekeepers are no match for them.

Gettleman goes on to say that horrified medical personnel, social service providers and humane government representatives are non-plused by the quantity and ferociousness of rape that has been ratcheted up to an unprecedented level – even worse than in Rwanda during the genocide. He quotes a Congolese doctor who works in the epicenter of Congo’s rape epidemic, South Kivu Province:

“Many have been so sadistically attacked from the inside out, butchered by bayonets and assaulted with chunks of wood, that their reproductive and digestive systems are beyond repair. We don’t know why these rapes are happening, but one thing is clear, they are done to destroy women.”

Destroying women has been S.O.P. since the dawn of time. At the dawn of the 21st century, things are much better in some places than in others, but nowhere on Earth are women free from the possibility (or probability) of rape and other violence – from fathers, brothers, sons, boyfriends, husbands, neighbors, strangers and soldiers.

What can we do in the face of such heartbreaking, overwhelming destruction of women? Nicholas D. Kristof, in a 6/25/07 op-ed in the New York Times that he wrote while in Congo, offered some good suggestions:

“There’s no simple solution to the conflict, but we can lean on Rwanda to stop supporting its proxy force in eastern Congo, and also to work harder to repatriate Hutus who have destabilized Congo since they fled here after the genocide in 1994. We can push a peace process. We can support the U.N. peacekeepers. We can help with the reform and training of Congo’s security forces. And a six-hour visit by Condi Rice would help put the crisis on the map.”

I’m writing to Secretary of State Rice asking that she make such a trip and specifically speak out against what many are calling Congo’s “rape industry.” Won’t you please join me?

Unfortunately, emails for the Secretary and other staff members at State are not available to the public (!). However, you can snail-mail or fax as follows:

Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice
U.S. State Department
Washington, DC 20520
Fax: 202-261-8577
(no street address necessary)

In addition, I’m sending a copy of my Rice letter to:

Ambassador Jendayi E. Frazer
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of African Affairs
U.S. Department of State
2201 “C” Street, NW
Washington, DC 20520
Tel: 202-647-4000 (24-hour service)

I would welcome receiving any further information about this issue and what others are doing to address it.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Faith and Reason

In an episode of the classic 70s sitcom, All in the Family, bigoted and conservative Archie Bunker has an argument about religion with his liberal son-in-law Michael (aka The Meathead). After fracturing chapter and verse to make his point about the existence of God and the literal truth of the Bible, Archie blurts out in exasperation: “Faith is believing what nobody in his right mind would believe!”

Around the world, we are in the midst of a great social divide about religion, a grudge-match between the Rationalists and the Believers. The Believers are represented largely by fundamentalists of various religions who accept the poetry and mythology of their sacred texts as literal gospel instead of fables and metaphors intended to illustrate prescribed values. In parallel contrast, the Rationalists eschew all aspects of religion, embracing instead a combination of history, science, civics and cynicism that omits any aspect of belief in universal mystery.

Before I continue, let me explain where I stand. I am a cultural/intellectual Jew who was raised in a religiously-mixed home (Jewish and Episcopalian) by parents who side-stepped all doctrine in favor of common sense, common decency, cultural literacy, honor, honesty, kindness and assorted holidays featuring nifty presents and great food.

I became a Spiritualist as an adult because I believe that all life is energy and energy doesn’t die, it’s transformed. I believe the essence of personality survives after physical death and that it is possible to commune with spirits. I don’t believe in a personified deity, in heaven or hell, or the seven levels of existence put forth by traditional Spiritualists. I bypass all the pretty, pat ideas that are intended to make the unknowable manageable. Instead, I accept that there are many things I will never know or understand and that I believe what I believe because it feels right to me and comforts me. I don’t know if it’s true and I don’t care. I also don’t care what anybody else believes. I have no need for others to believe as I do. I claim no justification. I make no apologies.

Lastly, I became an Interfaith minister for three reasons: I was spiritually curious; I wanted some measure of legal protection as a sincere Tarot counselor in a culture that regards everything occult as bullshit and bunko; and I wanted to supplement my income by performing weddings. My ministry, which I admit is currently under-used, is about communication and service. It feels right to me and comforts me – and through it, I try to comfort others who ask to be comforted.

Over the last several millennia, billions of people have believed in a burning bush, a man living inside a whale, immaculate conception, happy meals for thousands made from a couple of loaves and fishes, and everyone’s favorite: the 71 eager virgins who await martyrs in heaven. I wouldn’t have a problem with these or any other religious fairytales if it weren’t for the fact that millions of people have also been killed for not believing one or another of these stories. I also don’t like the blurring of the secular and the spiritual in politics, science and the collective constructions that support a pluralistic society.

So I find myself on the fence between the Rationalists and the Believers, recognizing the importance of resisting coercion by missionary believers in things that nobody in his right mind would believe, while still seeing the value of an unstructured sense of spiritual wonder to counterbalance our sensible pragmatism, as well as our soulless materialism and worship of mediocre celebrity.

The universe often communicates with me through television (because the wisdom of the ether seeks you out where you spend the most time). The other night, I saw the Sandra Bullock movie Premonition, which wasn’t as good as I’d hoped, but which featured an interesting exchange between the Bullock character (a young wife plagued by premonitions of her husband’s death) and a priest. In trying to explain what might be happening to her, the priest talks about a concept called “the dangers of the faithless.” “It’s based on the idea that nature abhors a vacuum, even a spiritual one,” he says, adding that without faith, one is an empty vessel and susceptible to being taken over by forces greater than oneself. “You have to believe in something beyond yourself, even if it’s just hope,” he says. The woman is not consoled. “I don’t know what to hope for.”

In these very frightening times of global violence, radical climate change, economic crises, enormous social upheaval, and the general feeling that it’s all going to hell in a hand basket, it’s not hard to understand why many people are grasping for the most simplistic of religious beliefs. They’re scared shitless, reaching out to a reassuring God like a frightened child crying for its mother. On the other hand, it’s equally easy to understand why the voices of secular reason are screaming to be heard above the din of illogical religious fervor.

Any way you look at it, if we are to survive in safety, sanity and freedom, each of us must find an assortment of reasonable things to hope for and a cushion of private faith that is personally sustaining.