Category Archives: Fellow Feeing

No Comic Relief


You know things are bad when we look to comedy writers for wisdom.  But that is what I want to do today. Recently, John Oliver began his television show by setting aside his regular introduction and speaking from the heart without making any jokes. That is not like him. So he did not offer any comic relief. In fact he didn’t really offer any relief at all, but he did offer some wisdom. More than many of our political leaders. So I want to turn this forum over to him. This is what he said soon after the horrific violence committed by Hamas in its attacks on Israeli civilians on October 7, 2023:


“I want to briefly talk to you about what has briefly been a horrible day. The immense suffering in Israel and Gaza has been sickening to watch and we are not going to be covering in the main body of our show for a couple of reasons.


First, it was horrific and I don’t really want to tell jokes about carnage and I’m pretty sure you don’t want to hear them. And second, we are taping this on Saturday afternoon and you’ll be hearing it on Sunday evening or on Monday through an illegal VPN. I do know who I’m talking to. Given how fast things are moving a lot could change between the time I’m saying this and the time you hear it. I do have a few broad thoughts that I still think will still apply. They have to do with sorrow, fear, and anger.

Sorrow is the first and most overwhelming feeling. The images we have seen this week and onwards have been totally heart-breaking. Thousands dead in Israel and now Gaza will be devastating not just to the people in the region but to diaspora communities across the world. Whatever thoughts you have about the history of this region or the current state of affairs, and I have shared mine in the past on this show, it should be impossible to see grieving families and not be moved. So there has been sorrow this week and lot of it. And also fear. Understandable fear of further attacks in Israel, and those taken hostage, and fear about what is to come in Gaza, as Israel’s leaders seem intent on embarking on a relentless bombing campaign, mass displacement, and a potential ground invasion.

I don’t know where things stand in Gaza right now, but all signs seem to be pointing towards a humanitarian catastrophe. Israeli official announced plans to cut off food, water, fuel and power. Hospitals are running low on generators. This has all the appearance of collective punishment which is a war crime.

I think many Israelis and Palestinians are feeling justifiable anger right now. Not just at Hamas whose utterly heinous terrorist acts set this weeks’ events in motion, but also the zealots and extremists across the board who consistently thwarted attempts at peace across the years. Israelis and Palestinians have been let down by their leadership time and time again and I don’t have a great deal of faith in the current leaders in charge to steer us toward peace. But I do still have some hope because the easiest thing to do in the world after a week like this is to engage in blood-thirsty rhetoric. And there has certainly been plenty of that from those in power, but I will say I have been struck by the ordinary citizens, both Israeli and Palestinian, who have called for restraint this week and not revenge.


Just listen to how Noy Katsman, whose brother Heim was murdered by Hamas last Saturday, ended this interview:


“I just wanted to say one more thing that is the most important thing for me and I think for my brother was that his death not be used to kill innocent people. I don’t want anything to happen to people in Gaza like happened to my brother. And I’m sure he wouldn’t want it either. So that is my call to my government—stop killing innocent people. That’s not the way to bring peace and security to people in Israel


Right! People want and are entitled to peace. I’m not going to tell either side how to get it. Certainly not in this accent [English] which has done enough damage in that region to last a fucking lifetime. But just know that all the people who want to live in that region are going to keep living there. So peace is not optional and will require some tough decisions. I can’t say where a peace process ends but it just has to start with that kind of an ability to recognize our common humanity.




Chief Seattle


Let me say at the outset that I am a white guy so what you read here is my interpretation of indigenous philosophy. Everyone should talk to indigenous people or read their own works to get the perspective of indigenous people about indigenous philosophy.  I think their philosophy is important and worth everyone’s attention. That is why I am giving my interpretation, but it is not intended to displace indigenous perspectives about their own philosophy.

I will start with a famous work of indigenous philosophy often attributed to Chief Seattle a famous indigenous chief. The I will give my views on it.

The Earth is Precious


How can you buy or sell the sky, the warmth of the land?  The idea is strange to us.

If we do not own the freshness of the air and the sparkle of the water, how can you buy them?


All Sacred


Every part of this earth is sacred to my people.

Every shining pine needle, every sandy shore, every mist in the dark woods, every clearing and humming insect is holy in the memory and experience of my people.  The sap which courses through the trees carries the memories of the red man.

The white man’s dead forget the country of their birth when they go to walk among the stars.  Our dead never forget this beautiful earth, for it is the mother of the red man.

We are part of the earth and it is part of us.

The perfumed flowers are our sisters; the deer, the horse, the great eagle, these are our brothers.

The rocky crests, the juices in the meadows, the body heat of the pony, and man—all belong to the same family.


Not easy


So when the Great Chief in Washington sends word that he wishes to buy our land, he asks much of us.  The Great Chief sends word he will reserve us a place so that we can live comfortably to ourselves.

He will be our father and we will be his children.  So we will consider your offer to buy our land.

But it will not be easy.  For this land is sacred to us.

This shining water that moves in the streams and rivers is not just water but the blood of our ancestors.

If we sell you land, you must remember that it is sacred and that each ghostly reflection in the clear water of the lakes tells of events and memories in the life of my people.

The water’s murmur is the voice of my father’s father.




The rivers are our brothers; they quench our thirst.  The rivers carry our canoes, and feed our children.  If we sell you our land, you must remember, and teach your children, that the rivers are our brothers, and yours, and you must henceforth give the rivers the kindness you would give any brother.

We know that the white man does not understand our ways.  One portion of land is the same to him as the next, for he is a stranger who comes in the night and takes from the land whatever he needs.

The earth is not his brother, but his enemy, and when he has conquered it, he moves on.

He leaves his father’s graves behind, and he does not care.  He kidnaps the earth from his children, and he does not care.

His father’s grave, and his children’s birthright, are forgotten.  He treats his mother, the earth, and this brother, the sky, as things to be bought, plundered, sold, like sheep or bright beads.

His appetite will devour the earth and leave behind only a dessert.

I do not know. Our ways are different from your ways.

The sight of your cities pains the eyes of the red man.  But perhaps it is because the red man is a savage and does not understand.

There is no quiet place in the white man’s cities.  No place to hear the unfurling of leaves in spring, or the rustle of an insect’s wings.

But perhaps it is because I am a savage and do not understand.

The clatter only seems to insult the ears.  And what is there to life if a man cannot hear the lonely cry of the whippoorwill or the arguments of the frogs around a pond at night?  I am a red man and do not understand.

The Indian prefers the soft sound of the wind darting over the face of a pond, and the smell of the wind itself, cleaned by a midday rain, or scented with the pinon pine.




The air is precious to the red man, for all things share the breath—the beast, the tree, the man, they all share the same breath.

The white man does not seem to notice the air he breathes.  Like a many dying for many days, he is numb to the stench.

But if we sell you our land, you must remember that the air is precious to us, that the air shares it spirit with all the life it supports.  The wind that gave our grandfather his first breath also receives his last sigh.

And if we sell you our land, you must keep it apart and sacred, as a place where even the white man can to taste the wind that is sweetened by the meadow’s flowers.


One condition


So we will consider your offer to buy our land.  If we decide to accept, I will make one condition:  the white man must treat the beasts of this land as his brothers.

I am a savage and I do not understand any other way.

I have seen a thousand rotting buffaloes on the prairie, left by the white man who shot them from a passing train.

I am a savage and do not understand how the smoking iron horse can be more important than the buffalo that we kill only to stay alive.

Why is man without beasts?  If all the beasts were gone, man would die from a great loneliness of the spirit.

         For whatever happens to the beasts, soon happens to man.  All things are connected.


The Ashes


You must teach your children that the ground beneath their feet is the ashes of your grandfathers.  So that they will respect the land, tell your children that the earth is rich with the lives of our kin.

Teach your children what we have taught our children, that the earth is our mother.

Whatever befalls the earth befalls the sons of the earth.  If men spit upon the ground they spit upon themselves.

This is we know:  The earth does not belong to man; man belongs to the earth.  This we know.

All things are connected like the blood which unites one family.  All things are connected.

Whatever befalls the earth befalls the sons of he earthMan did not weave the web of life; he is merely a strand in it.  Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself.

Even the white man, whose God walks and talks with him as friend to friend, cannot be exempt from the common destiny.

We may be brothers after all.

We shall see.

One thing we know, which one the white man may one day discover—our God is the same God.

You may think now that you own Him as you wish to own our land; but you cannot.  He is the God of man, and His compassion is equal for the red man and the white.

This earth is precious to Him, and to harm the earth is to heap contempt on its Creator.

The whites too shall pass: perhaps sooner than all other tribes.  Contaminate your bed, and you will one night suffocate in your own waste.

But in your perishing you will shine brightly, fired by the strength of the God who brought you to this land and for some special purpose gave you dominion over this land and over the red man.

That destiny is a mystery to us, for we do not understand when the buffalo are all slaughtered, the wild horses are tamed, the secret corners of the forest heavy with the scent of many men, and the view of the ripe hills blotted by talking wires.

Where is the thicket?  Gone.

Where is the eagle?  Gone.

The end of living and the beginning of survival.



I have been blogging about a new attitude to nature.  The ancient attitude of indigenous people as exemplified by Chief Seattle in my mind sums up that new attitude to nature.

Group Thinks v. Long Thinks


In the novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Huck encounters a number of deep moral dilemmas. The biggest of course is whether or not he should help Jim a slave escape from his “rightful owner” a woman who had never done him any harm. Huck “knows” what he should do. His conscience tells him that. He should not help a slave to escape. That would be wrong. But Huck stops and makes “a long think.” He must think critically.


Huck is also challenged by religion. He was taught that ever since he was born. Religion, together with the notion of white supremacy, is the ideology of his life. He “knows” it is right yet is challenged about it. Both of these are ideologies. They are both born from group think. We believe what we are taught by our team.

When Huck was having difficulties falling into the group think, Miss Watson would take him into the closet and pray with him.

“But nothing come of it. She told me to pray every day, and whatever I asked for I would get it. But it warn’t so. I tried it. Once I got a fish-line, but no hooks. It warn’t any good to me without hooks. I tried for hooks there or four times., but somehow I couldn’t make it work. By and by, I asked Miss Watson to try for me, but she said I was a fool. She never told me why. And couldn’t make it out no way. ”


As a result, Huck did what he should do.  He “set down one time back in the woods, and had a long think.” He thought about it critically with all his faculties. His reasoning would not be considered very sophisticated. As he said,

“I said to myself, if a body can get anything they pray for why don’t Deacon Winn get back the money he lost on pork?  Why can’t the widow her snuff-box that was stole? Why can’t Miss Watson fat up? No, I says to myself, there ain’t nothing in it. I went and told the widow about it and she said, the thing a body could get by praying for it was “spiritual gifts.” This was too many for me, but she told me what she meant—I must help other people, and do everything I could for others, and look out for them all the time and never think about myself…I went out in the woods and turned it over in my mind a long time, but I couldn’t see no advantage about it—except for the other people, so I reckoned I wouldn’t worry about it anymore, but just let it go.”


Ironically this is exactly what Huck later did. He followed her advice when it came to helping Jim. He neglected in the extreme what was good for himself—namely avoiding hell, but helped Jim anyway. And this is really what religion is all about. It is not about praying for fishhooks. It is about felling empathy for others, like Huck did to Jim. In Huck’s case it was his critically thinking, not his religious ideology that led him to do the right thing. His religious ideology taught him to do the wrong thing, namely worry about eternal heaven at the cost of his friend’s freedom. His ideology misfired. He said he would listen to this ideology but could not do it. He rejected the group think and did the right thing, thanks to a long think.

A long think combined with fellow feeling is a most powerful force!

I think that is what the religious quest in the modern age is all about.

Shouldn’t we all make more long thinks?


Confronting Truth and finding spiritual freedom


Authorities have known for a long time, at least since the time of Plato, that the rebellion of poets and artists is dangerous to established authority and power. Their alternative reality is also one that is deviant and defiant. The members of the Republic of the Imagination are always prepared to dissent. That makes them uncompliant to power that wants to dominate. That makes them subversive and hostile to arbitrary authority. Not all authority.


One can only belong to such a subversive group if one has not only the courage of one’s convictions, but as Nietzsche said, “the courage to attack one’s convictions.” No truths are too sacred to be attacked or challenged. Even those we hold most dear. There should be no barriers to pursuing truth. One should be free to challenge all conventional wisdom. Even the truths of patriots are open to question. The country cannot demand absolute obedience or obeisance. Great literature is always ready, willing, and able to attack any sacred cows. That is why, as Nafisi said, “If we need fiction today, it is not because we need to escape from reality; it is because we need to return to it with eyes that are refreshed, or as Tolstoy would have it, “clean-washed.

We must recognize that there are more freedoms than one. Nowadays the idea of freedom has been besmirched. In Canada we recently had the freedom convoy in our nation’s capital. The members of that convoy basically demanded the freedom to do whatever they wanted. They really recognized no limits on freedom, which of course, means they advocated for anarchy which is not freedom at all. It is an illusory freedom that they urge upon us. It is not the freedom to light out for the territory of Huck Finn.

Once again, Azar Nafisi made this point eloquently:

But of course, there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious, you will not hear much talked about in the great outside world of wanting and achieving and displaying.  The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty, unsexy little ways, every day.  That is real freedom. That is being educated, and understanding how to think. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the rat race, the constant gnawing sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing.

 This is the freedom of Huck Finn. He was willing to sacrifice not just his life, but put himself in peril of eternal damnation, to save his friend, a black slave. That was the freedom he wanted. And he would do anything to achieve it. It was not a selfish freedom; it was real freedom. It was not the freedom of the convoy for whom freedom was all about me.

In its essence this is the freedom to think. Even if it’s a “long think.” The freedom to think for oneself, not chained to the conventional wisdom. It takes courage to be free. And no one had more courage than Huck Finn. After, all he was willing to risk eternal damnation. This is the freedom of Huck Finn!

 That is what a spiritual declaration of independence is all about.

The Mennonite Pharisee and the Polish Samaritan


Refugee crises are invariably wicked problems. Every country wants to control its own borders. No country just wants to open the gates completely wide. After all, what good would it do to let countries be completely swamped?  No one benefits when anarchy is spread everywhere.

On the other hand, most countries want to help, particularly their neighbours. But that is not always easy to do.

What we need is calm and compassionate consideration and temperate with rationality. That is not an easy task.

Turning our backs on the refugees is not the answer for most of us. Most of us don’t want to be Pharisees. We don’t want to turn our back on the poor soul mired in the mud or lying on the ground. But how can we help? Destroying our lives and those of our loved ones is also not the answer. What is the answer? The first thing that is sure, is the answer is not simple. Miriam Toews was right. Kindness is complicated.   As a result we will make mistakes.


Melissa Martin in her Winnipeg Free Press  article said she did not believe that the  way we deal with difficult refugee problems is inevitable. we must make choices. Yet Poland has shown to us what is possible if we work together. Big problems can be solved. Only with teamwork would it be possible for a small country to do what Poland has done in accepting 2.5 million refugees.

People on all sides tend to oversimplify problems and their solutions. As she said,


“News, often, has an unfortunate way of flattening places and events into a narrow focus without nuance, without texture. In one such narrative, Poland becomes all good; in another, its treatment of largely Muslim asylum-seekers caught on the border, it’s all bad.


The reality is, of course, is that it’s neither. Yes, it’s in Poland where a border dispute has forced people to suffer in limbo, but it’s also in Poland where activists and aid groups risk everything to get food and warm clothes to the people huddled at the Belarusian border. Some have been caught by police and taken before a judge; still, their brave and ferociously loving work continues.”


Poland has shown us clouds from both sides. They have shown us the best of people, but have also shown a dark side. I remember when my own Member of Parliament—presumably a good Mennonite—showed us what the Pharisees were like. When people from Central and South America were trying to enter Canada because they feared what Trump and his cronies would do to them, and fled here across a frozen Red River, he told us to fear these refugees and complained that our Prime Minister was opening the borders wide.  That was very different from the Poles that Martin described in her article. People living near the border sneaked into the woods to hang bundles of aid in the trees even though they were threatened by the police.  One of them told the New York Times, “no one will die in my forest.” There was the Good Samaritan—the good neighbour. My pious member of Parliament looked down on the hapless people freezing in the cold, and urged us to do the same.  on the other hand, Martin described how volunteers in Emerson in the winter of 2017 when there was an unprecedented wave of people walking across the border north into Canada from the US  tried to make sure no one froze to death. More good neighbours.


As Melissa Martin said,

“The bad in the world, and in people, speaks in cruelty and destruction. But if you want to see the good in people, you will find it in the same place, and from there you can see the foundations of bridges that are waiting to be built. The lesson of Poland’s refugee crisis — not two, but one — is that the good is ever-present, waiting for an invitation to happen.”

Each of us can choose to be a Pharisee or a Samaritan.  And we may have the chance to make that choice more than once. One time we can be a Samaritan and the next a Pharisee. It’s  all up to us.


The “Other” Refugee Crisis in Poland


The people of Poland have allowed 2,500,000 people from Ukraine to claim asylum or refugee status in the last couple of months. That is an astonishing moral achievement. But Poles are not perfect. Who among us is perfect?

We all know that in recent years waves of refugees have been crossing European borders from troubled lands. Poles were not always so generous with these refugee claimants. With them they were not so generous. Why was that?

First, the pressure is always greatest on the nearby countries.  For example, for Syrian refugees the greatest numbers have fled not to Germany, which  rightly who got a lot of credit for their heroic efforts. Lebanon and Turkey accepted the most refugees because they were close. This was not just out of humanitarian spirit, but that was not absent. The same goes for Poland. neighbours often have little choice. If they don’t help the neighbouring country, they will have a humanitarian crisis on its hands.

As Melissa Martin acknowledged in her insightful article for the Winnipeg Free Press:

“Still, there’s no question Ukrainian refugees have received a markedly warmer and less fraught embrace in Europe and North America than refugees from, for instance, Syria. Countries, including Canada, rushed to simplify entry requirements and open their doors to Ukrainians in ways many were reluctant, if not outright hostile, to do for others seeking safety.”


The refugee crisis from predominantly Muslim countries like Syria was treated very differently. The Muslims, unlike the Ukrainians were treated with suspicion. In fact, even worse, they were treated as “ammunition in political wars” as Martin called it. Starting in 2021 when Muslim refugees started surging across European borders to seek asylum in Europe, including from Belarus to Poland, Belarus used the people as hostages in their dispute with Europe.  As Martin reported:

“In May 2021, in response to proposed European Union sanctions on the country, Belarusian president Aleksandr Lukashenko warned the EU that his nation would cease stopping “drugs and migrants” and allow the EU to “eat them and catch them yourselves.” Within months, Belarus state tourism had begun advertising in countries including Iraq.

People came, and they headed to the border. But once there, the asylum-seekers and migrants found themselves caught in a nightmare. Poland pushed them back, but Belarus wouldn’t let them stay, either. Humanitarian aid was denied, and asylum-seekers reported being beaten by Belarusian police. Poland and other countries accused Belarus of “hybrid warfare.”

Whatever the truth of this, Poland’s government was quick to go along with treating people like weapons, and then hid them from view. It enforced a three-kilometre exclusion zone against the border, into which journalists, doctors and humanitarian aid workers were forbidden to enter. It’s now building a border wall with Belarus, as is Lithuania.”


Some of the refugees found themselves living in the forest of Poland or Belarus in winter. That is about as much fun as spending the winter in Manitoba, living outdoors.

Even Melissa Martin, that bleeding heart liberal, admitted that the different response to Ukrainian refugees compared to Muslim refugees had at least a partly darker basis, namely, racism. As she said,

“There is no way to look at the responses and ignore the Islamophobia and racism that has animated the difference; we must name that to have any meaningful discussion about these issues.”


Hatred, just like kindness, is complicated. No, the Poles were not unmixed saints. No one is.

Some commentators have referred to this as Poland’s “other” refugee crisis. Martin preferred to say it is was all part of the same crisis and that is a world crisis. Both have their dark sides too. As she said,

“Refugees from Ukraine flee a war launched by Russia, an unprovoked invasion that has caused unimaginable destruction. At the border with Belarus, people come from Iraq, which was destabilized by the unprovoked 2003 American invasion and the ensuing civil war; and from Afghanistan, brutalized and toyed with for decades by more powerful nations.

They come from Yemen, where Canadian weapons sold to Saudi Arabia are among those wielded in a war that has killed more than 200,000 civilians and triggered mass starvation. And they come from Syria, where… well, we don’t have space to untangle all the forces that have combined to prosecute the sheer human trauma inflicted in that conflict.

In all of these events, the story in the broadest strokes is fundamentally the same: powerful forces unleash hell on a civilian population to shore up their own geopolitical aims. In all of these events, the wealthy stand to gain, and they convince their people to either support it or, at the very least, ignore their complicity in it. Those who suffer most have no say.

This is why the wildly divergent experiences of refugees in Poland must be seen together, and one shouldn’t be told without the other, because they form a coherent story about how human beings must exist in a world battered by the use and misuse of power, and also offer a crystal-clear contrast study in how such crises of humanity can be handled.”


Russia is to blame, but so is the United States, Canada, UK, Turkey and pretty near every powerful country in the world. I don’t have enough time in my life to search for the innocent country. We must all take a share of the responsibility to solve this crisis.

Everyone knows it will be difficult for the refugees in Poland. It is always difficult for refugees wherever they go. The refugees have a rough road ahead of them, yet most of them are very grateful for what they have received from countries like Poland and to a lesser, but significant extent, Canada.

Most of the refugees are women with children or old people. Refugees are invariably the most vulnerable people and often people try to take advantage of them. Refugees invariably want to go home as soon as possible, but some have to admit that is not likely to happen soon or at all, so they permanent asylum somewhere.

Notwithstanding that, Martin described what happened this way:

“But for now, at least, the breadth and depth and spirit of the Polish response will stand as one of the most remarkable our generation has witnessed. It was at times chaotic, sprouting in countless small efforts that grew into a messy sort of safety net; but it worked, and it saved lives, and it’s one of the most immediately beautiful things I have ever witnessed.”

It’s one of the most beautiful things I have ever heard of. Humans at their best. But not simple. It’s a complicated kindness.


Poles help with their Whole Hearts


As I mentioned yesterday , remarkable things are happening in Poland and Ukraine besides the devastation of war and few people seem to realize it. Ukrainians have been fleeing across the border to Poland who has been opening up their homes and hearts to their stricken brothers.

Frankly, it is one of the most incredible things ever! 2.5 million refugees have been allowed into the country.


This is how Winnipeg Free Press columnist, Melissa Martin, described what was happening in Poland as Polish refugees streamed across the border as if it did not exist:


“In Poland, Ukrainians have found an unparalleled welcome, one that sprung from the grassroots of the country with far less government intervention than one would expect. Every Ukrainian we meet speaks about this; each one tells a story about a Pole they met who offered them a place to stay, or bought their meal or, at least in one case, even paid for their contact lenses.”



Ukrainians have been showing the world what it means to be a Good Samaritan when it might be much easier and much safer to be a Pharisee. As Martin said, “Hostels, hotels, shopping malls, new apartments, old apartments, even ordinary citizens’ spare bedrooms became homes for Ukrainians to stay.”


One of the Ukrainian immigrants who was one his way to Pinawa Manitoba, of all places, told Martin this: “Polish people “help with their whole heart.”


Martin said she interviewed someone and asked if all this help had been managed or engineered by the Polish government. This is what she found:

 I wondered if any of this was self-conscious. Was there a sense that, with the war, Poland’s response was in the spotlight?

“I don’t think anyone thought about the world watching,” he said. “In a way, Poles were feeling proud of themselves, and proud of their country. It wasn’t a political issue. It didn’t matter who you supported. Everyone just understood ‘now we help.’ “In a weird way, there was almost a unification: ‘We agree on something. We help now.’ 


My favourite expression for that is fellow feeling. Or empathy.

Yet everyone must admit there is another refugee crisis that is far from over.  It involved different people and a different reaction, by other Europeans and by Poles as well. We must get the whole story. The rest of the story is not as attractive.  That is not to be expected, people are rarely saints. I will fill out the picture in my next post. Nobody is perfect; not even Poles.

We can choose to be Pharisees or Samaritans


I have just learned about a remarkable thing that has been happening in Poland. It is one of the most incredible stories I have ever of and it is happening at what I would have thought was a very unlikely place—Poland. After all, Poland is the place that recently did not earn must credit for its seesaw battle over getting rid of migrants in its fight with Belarus.  It has proven the truth of what Charles Dickens said  more than 200 years ago in the opening sentence of his marvelous book A Tale of Two Cities:


“It was the best of time, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way—in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”


In other words, as Dickens and Miriam Toews both understood so well, kindness is complicated.


I have been obsessing about Putin and Ukraine. I admit it. I think it is one of the most important things that have happened in the 20th and 21st centuries.  I really believe we need to pay attention. One of the reasons is the rise of authoritarianism and fascism. In the last couple of years some criticized me because I obsessed about Trump.   The reason I focused so much attention on Trump and then Putin is because I believe the same contaminated sea has thrown up those two monsters.  We must pay attention or we may pay an awful price.

Yet, something remarkable has happened in Ukraine that few people are paying attention to and it is something wonderful.  That is not just the incredible courage of the Ukrainian people and their inspiring comedian of a leader. That other thing has happened in Poland.

Poland frankly has been flooded with Ukrainians. And I mean a deluge of Ukrainians.  More than a week ago Melissa Martin wrote an amazing article after the Winnipeg Free Press sent her to Ukraine and Poland.  This is what she wrote:

“Poland’s incredible embrace of its Ukrainian neighbours has shown the world a beautiful, generous heart; the mostly hidden, inhumane treatment of refugees at the border with Belarus reveals something very different.”


When she arrived in Poland, she intended to photograph everything she could see that reflected Poland’s solidarity with their Ukrainian neighbours.  She soon gave up. There was too much to photograph!

When Martin arrived she saw blue and white everywhere together with the following statement: jestesmy z wami” — we are with you.

And Poland really means it. Canada talks a lot and we do some good things.  We would do more if more politicians were like the Good Samaritan and less were like our own Ted Falk. Ted Falk, when he sees Canada is asked to help, quickly points to the dangers that he sees. I remember how he spread fear about those dangerous illegal immigrants on our southern border, some of whom froze trying to get  here.  Many of those dangers are absurd, but that is what Pharisees do. They look for reasons to do nothing to help and such reasons are always at hand.

Martin also described how on a road near Warsaw she saw a giant billboard that read in censored Ukrainian: “Putin, Go F—k Yourself.” That was what the brave Ukrainians on that little island said to the Russian Warship that demanded they surrender. These aren’t official efforts; some motivated citizen spent the money to erect them. The signs in Poland to that effect are unofficial. Not paid by any government. People just did it. That’s what Poles do—they just to it.

But all of this is a brief introduction to what Poles are just doing. Here is how Martin described it:

“So this is the visual backdrop to what is, on the ground, a staggering achievement in humanitarian assistance. By early April, more than four million Ukrainians had fled; most of them came through Poland, and 2.5 million stayed. In one of his speeches, Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy said it was as if there was no border between them.”


I am not a complete Pollyanna here. I know that is a lot of people for one country especially a country that is not among Europe’s richest. There will be problems with that many refugees. We know that. But imagine how Poland just did it. When Germany courageously under the leadership of Angela Merkel said Germany would take in 1,000,000 people many people rose up in fury. They were like the Pharisee not the Samaritan.  It is much easier to be a Pharisee than a Samaritan.

 But no matter how you look at it 2.5 million refugees is a lot of people. Poland is magnificent. Poland is a neighbour.

My Kind of Christian: Mother West and the Kingdom of Heaven


Cornel West  has been a professor at Princeton, Harvard and  Union Theological Seminary recently talked about his mother in an interview broadcast on PBS. It was clear that she was the most important woman in his life, and always had been, even though he was married 3 times.


On PBS West said his mom was,

“kind of a walking truth and beauty and grounded in the holy, because she believed fundamentally as a Christian woman, as a black woman coming out of Jim Crow Louisiana…She wanted to open herself, to empty herself, to donate herself, to give herself to make the world a better place. She understood if the kingdom of God is within you that everywhere you go you are going to leave a little heaven behind. And any time anybody sees me, they see her because I have to try to do that in my life–leaving a little bit of heaven behind. It could be Socratic heaven, it could be prophetic heaven, it could be a little Richard Pryor comic heaven, but somehow we have to help empower somebody to make the world better and to come along.  Make sure you leave the world just a little more sweet and joyful then when you found it. That’s mom. That’s Irene B. West. Nobody like her. One of a kind.”


I only have one small addition to that, because I never knew his mother. I don’t know him. I have heard him on radio and television a few times and I have heard him speak in person at Arizona State University. But one thing I do know, he sure loved his Mom.

Sometimes you don’t have to go very far on a religious quest.  Look close to home. In fact, West made me think of my mother and my mother-in-law. They are the two most amazing women I have ever met. Neither of them ever made grandiose statements about what great Christians they were.  And they were great Christians. In simple everyday ways, both of them were transfused with the best of religion and by that I mean simple but unequalled compassion for others. Thats what I think it means to walk truth and beauty and be grounded in the holy.


Jazzman in the world of ideas & a Bluesman in the life of the mind (Part I)

Music is very important to Cornel West. Every time I have heard him speak he brings music into the conversation. Music and religion is where his religious quest leads him.

He always comes back to music as being the root of his philosophy. While he says he likes classical music, Jazz and the Blues  are both deeply embedded in the black tradition in America and that is where his heart and soul lies.  West identified with Ella Fitzgerald, Mohammed Ali, and John Coltrane among others.  West called himself, “A Jazzman in the world of ideas and a bluesman in the life of the mind.”

The black musical tradition had to deal with the catastrophe of slavery and the catastrophe of Jim Crowe. That was the cradle of that musical tradition giving birth to both jazz and the blues.   That is what West identifies with. Out of that was also born his prophetic rebellion. The response to being hated and haunted, he said,  was the love supreme of John Coltrane, clearly one of West’s heroes. I like him too.

When West spoke a the University of Winnipeg he was asked by a student at the U of W why he was not more actively engaged in practical politics of rebellion.  West, said his calling was to be a “Jazzman in the world of ideas, which means that I have to sing my song.”  He had to raise his voice there he said.  If he does that  he said he believed he can “put pressure on the status quo that could generate concessions and reforms.” He wants to have impact on the ground but thinks he can do that both from the inside and the outside. Running for office is not what his calling is. “Asking him to run for office is like asking a jazzman to join the military band,” he suggested Though he likes classical music, he would rather play body and soul. “You have to be true to who you are,” says West.

How to we respond to catastrophe, that is the fundamental question,” says West. Do you respond with critical reflection? Compassion or courageous action?  Those are all important and valuable. Or do you respond with callous indifference, dogmatic thinking, and a very tribalistic orientation? Those are not productive. Your reaction to the catastrophe is what counts.


He also identified with the love ethic of a James Baldwin or Marvin Gaye or Nina Samone or MaryLou Williams.  According to West, “that is precisely what is needed because the whole planet has the blues.” He wants to be a small part of that grand tradition that leads to critical reflection, love, compassion and courage.  But that is not a black thing. Anyone can join that tradition! We can join it too.  He mentioned a long list of names of people that inspired him. Many also inspired me. West said, You get that from Rabbi Joshua Heschel, George Gershwin, Steven Sondheim, and Margaret Atwater.  I could many to that list: Gandhi, Bertrand Russell, Christopher Hedges, Slavoj Zizek,  Arthur Schafer, Woody Guthrie, and Cornel West himself. Among many others. There are many who sing in that choir.

All of them deal with catastrophic consciousness and how do you deal with such catastrophes. You generate some kind of love, some kind of connection with others, mediated with kindness, sweetness and gentleness. Fellow feeling I call that. You have got make such a response a matter of heart and souls says West. That is what the blues are all about.

It’s a human thing. The black musical tradition brings it together in such a powerful way. “It is not just cerebral it is visceral,” says West.