Thursday 21 April 2016

In the footsteps of Moses – A Passover reflection

By Dan Viesnik

I was born of two Jewish parents who, despite their lack of religious devotion, always insisted that as a family we maintain the annual domestic tradition of observing the Passover Seder. Before tucking into a lavish meal, we would be required to read and sing from the Haggadah for an hour or so. This religious text narrates the story of the book of Exodus when, with the Lord’s assistance, Moses led his (my) people out of bondage under the Egyptian Pharaoh, through the desert and on to the Promised Land. I always feel somewhat uncomfortable nowadays, especially since becoming involved in peace activism, as we go around the table taking turns to read the story out loud and giving thanks and praise to Adonai (the Lord) for slaughtering the first born of Egypt, afflicting their people with terrible plagues and drowning their armies in the Red Sea. It is a tale of deliverance and salvation but also one of retribution and terrible violence and suffering visited upon even young children judged to be guilty by association. It calls to mind the Christian tale of King Herod’s slaughter of the Holy Innocents. One could say that this is how terrorists such as those of Da’esh (the so-called ‘Islamic State’), Al Qaeda, or even many governments (not least the modern state of Israel) seek to justify their barbarous and indiscriminate acts of violence and cruelty against civilians. When we dip herbs in salt water to symbolise the tears of the Jews suffering under bondage, I also want to weep for those innocent Egyptian children and their grieving families, and for the children of modern day Gaza, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, killed, maimed and traumatised by conflict, often at the instigation of – or with the complicity of - the UK and its allies.

Moses’s Children of Israel were migrants. They were refugees fleeing oppression, like those we today find stranded in makeshift camps in Calais and Dunkirk, arriving in flimsy dinghies on the European shores of the Mediterranean (or drowning at sea), and being marched over mountains and bundled into the backs of lorries by people smugglers. I guess they would have had enemies with a similar mentality to the xenophobic hate-mongering editorial team of the Daily Express newspaper or US Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump. I guess in its time there would also have been domestic opponents to the Kindertransport of unaccompanied Jewish children fleeing persecution by the Nazis on the eve of the Second World War. The primary response of many to such a daunting wave of movement of people is one of fear. It may be fear of the unknown, fear of change, or fear of a perceived threat to one’s lifestyle (such as Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond’s scare-mongering warning last August concerning “millions” of “marauding” African migrants); but it is undoubtedly a fear response, mediated by the primitive limbic system of the brain. It is an attitude that I believe is best tempered through a counter-balancing energy of loving compassion and empathy. This was very much in evidence when the pictures of the tiny lifeless body of drowned Syrian toddler Aylan Kurdi lying on a Turkish beach hit the front pages of the papers last September: those powerful images triggered a wave of public compassion for a time and forced Prime Minister David Cameron to hastily agree to resettle 20,000 Syrian refugees in the UK over the next few years, having previously only conceded to take a few hundred (although the new figure still pales into insignificance next to the several million refugees already received by Germany, Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan combined).

Jesus instructs us to love our neighbours as ourselves. Certainly not everyone finds it easy to love themselves, and perhaps this is part of the problem, but we nevertheless understand what it meant. He goes on to elaborate that even someone of the Samaritan race, maligned by the Judeans, is a good neighbour when he tends to the traveller who has been mugged and left for dead by the roadside (see Luke 10:25-37). The key message here being not to judge our refugee and migrant brothers and sisters by where they come from, what religion or sect they follow, their appearance, language or accent, but to imagine ourselves in their shoes (assuming they still have them) and consider how we would hope to be treated if fate had dealt us the same terrible hand, if we had been through those same trials and tribulations. It means getting to know them as individuals, hearing their stories, researching what is happening in their countries, and welcoming them into our homes and spaces. If only we all started doing this, then perhaps we could put aside our differences, stop being afraid and stand side by side with those who today find themselves walking in the footsteps of Moses.

Wednesday 16 September 2015

Mission: Calais - appeal for assistance


This is an appeal for financial assistance to enable me to carry out voluntary work in Calais on behalf of our brothers and sisters who are stranded there as refugees and migrants. I need your help to cover my expenses: travel, accommodation and food.

You can donate via Paypal by clicking on the Donate button on the right hand side of this page. Every little helps and is appreciated. All donations will be spent wisely and anything that is surplus to requirement for my upcoming trip (Friday 18th - Monday 21st September) will be kept aside for my next volunteering stint in Calais, which is planned for the near future, or will be used to pay for items needed by our brothers and sisters in the camp from Syria, Afghanistan, Eritrea, Sudan, etc or put towards a fund I plan to set up to help other destitute individuals from the UK volunteer their services in Calais.

Many thanks in advance for your help! :-)

Thursday 24 October 2013

Thoughts on nonviolence

I thought I would share some words of wisdom from Vietnamese Buddhist monk and nonviolence practitioner Thich Nhat Hanh, from a book called 'Love in Action: Writings on Nonviolent Social Change' (1993).

Here are a few extracts from chapter four, titled: “Ahimsa: The Path of Harmlessness” (my emphasis in bold):

"The Sanskrit word ahimsa, usually translated “nonviolence," literally means “non-harming” or “harmlessness.” To practice ahimsa, first of all we have to practice it within ourselves. In each of us, there is a certain amount of violence and a certain amount of nonviolence. Depending on our state of being, our response to things will be more or less nonviolent. Even if we take pride in being vegetarian, for example, we have to acknowledge that the water in which we boil our vegetables contains many tiny microorganisms. We cannot be completely nonviolent, but by being vegetarian [say], we are going in the direction of nonviolence. If we want to head north, we can use the North Star to guide us, but it is impossible to arrive at the North Star. Our effort is only to proceed in that direction.

"Anyone can practice some nonviolence, even soldiers. Some army generals, for example, conduct their operations in ways that avoid killing innocent people; this is a kind of nonviolence. To help soldiers move in the nonviolent direction, we have to be in touch with them. If we divide reality into two camps – the violent and the nonviolent – and stand in one camp while attacking the other, the world will never have peace. We will always blame and condemn those we feel are responsible for wars and social injustice, without recognising the degree of violence in ourselves. We must work on ourselves and also work with those we condemn if we want to have a real impact.

"It never helps to draw a line and dismiss some people as enemies, even those who act violently. We have to approach them with love in our hearts and do our best to help them move in a direction of nonviolence. If we work for peace out of anger, we will never succeed. Peace is not an end. It can never come about through non-peaceful means.

"When we protest against a war, we may assume that we are a peaceful person, a representative of peace, but this might not be the case. If we look deeply, we will observe that the roots of war are in the unmindful ways we have been living. We have not sown enough seeds of peace and understanding in ourselves and others, therefore we are co-responsible: “Because I have been like this, they are like that.” A more holistic approach is the way of “interbeing”: “This is like this, because that is like that.” This is the way of understanding and love. With this insight, we can see clearly and help our government see clearly. Then we can go to a demonstration and say, “This war is unjust, destructive, and not worthy of our great nation.” This is far more effective than angrily condemning others. Anger always accelerates the damage.

"We know how to write strong letters of protest, but we must also learn to write love letters to our President and Representatives, demonstrating the kind of understanding and using the kind of language they will appreciate. If we don’t, our letters may end up in the trash and help no one. To love is to understand. We cannot express love to someone unless we understand him or her. If we do not understand our President or Congressperson, we cannot write him or her a love letter.

"People are happy to read a good letter in which we share our insights and our understanding. When they receive that kind of letter, they feel understood and they will pay attention to your recommendations. You may think that the way to change the world is to elect a new President, but a government is only a reflection of society, which is a reflection of our own consciousness. To create fundamental change, we, the members of society, have to transform ourselves. If we want real peace, we have to demonstrate our love and understanding so that those responsible for making decisions can learn from us.

"All of us, even pacifists, have pain inside. We feel angry and frustrated, and we need to find someone willing to listen to us who is capable of understanding our suffering. In Buddhist iconography, there is a bodhisattva named Avalokitesvara who has 1,000 arms and 1,000 hands, and has an eye in the palm of each hand. One thousand hands represent action, and the eye in each hand represents understanding. When you understand a situation or a person, any action you do will help and will not cause more suffering. When you have an eye in your hand, you will know how to practice true nonviolence."

Sunday 24 March 2013

Tories plan to drop climate change from the UK National Curriculum

Words fail me! If you care one iota about the future of our planet and its human and non-human inhabitants, please consider signing and sharing this important e-petition:


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(Last edited: 24 October 2013)