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This blog contains the musings of an Ethical Culture Leader (clergy).
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Leader’s Message – “They Are All Our Children” – September 2018

Thu, 08/02/2018 - 3:59pm

This summer we watched as one group of children was trapped in, and subsequently rescued from, a flooded cave in Thailand while another group was separated from their parents at the southwest border of the United States and held hostage to a cruel immigration policy called “zero tolerance.” A New Yorker cartoon captured the contrast by depicting children in a detention cage in Texas watching the rescue in Thailand on television.

 

We all watched. From June 23 when twelve members of the Wild Boar soccer team, aged 11 to 16 years, and their coach became trapped in the Tham Luang caves by monsoon rains to July 2 when British divers found them on a rocky ledge to the death of a former Thai Navy Seal on July 6 from lack of oxygen to the successful conclusion of the complex international rescue effort on July 10, we virtually joined their parents, who maintained a constant vigil outside the caves praying for their safe return.

 

Hundreds of experts from around the world flew in to help. Divers described treacherous conditions in the four kilometer passage that took hours to traverse. “This is the hardest mission we’ve ever done. Every step of the extraction is risky,” said Narongsuk Keasub, a diver for the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand. He added, “I’m quite emotional as a father. Everybody has this feeling because we feel like it’s our children who are inside the cave.” Our children.

 

I try to imagine the desperation that drives parents to risk their and their children’s lives to escape from the violence in their home countries, only to be treated as criminals at the U.S. border and have their children ripped from their arms. What I cannot imagine is the trauma these children experience. But Commander Jonathan White of the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps could imagine it. He and the Office of Refugee Resettlement told the Trump administration last year that “There’s no question that separation of children from parents entails significant potential for traumatic psychological injury to the child.” The administration’s response was that family separation was not a policy.

 

However, on April 6, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced a “zero tolerance” policy and directed federal prosecutors to criminally prosecute all adult migrants entering the country illegally. This policy change resulted in the separation of families because children cannot be held in a detention facility with their parents. Nonetheless, five days later, Homeland Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen testified that there was no policy calling for such separation. Sessions later suggested that children were being “smuggled” and stated, “If you are smuggling a child, then we will prosecute you and that child will be separated from you as required by law.”

 

By May, White House Chief of Staff John Kelly was defending the separation as “a necessary evil” and “a tough deterrent” in the administration’s effort to enforce U.S. border laws. Nielsen, however, still denied that Trump had ordered the separation as a deterrent. On June 15, her office revealed that nearly 2,000 children had been separated from their parents from April 19 to May 31. Five days later, facing a national outcry, Trump signed an executive order, drafted by Nielsen, to keep migrant families together at the U.S.-Mexico border. On June 26, U.S. District Judge Dana Sabraw in San Diego, who described the Trump administration’s handling of the crisis as attempts “to address a chaotic circumstance of the government’s own making,” ordered U.S. immigration authorities to reunite separated families within 30 days, children younger than 5 years within 14 days.

 

Again, the whole world watched. We watched as the deadlines were passed, court updates were filed, and congressional hearings were held. Judge Sabraw said that the government gave no “forethought as to reunification and keeping track of people, and that’s the fallout we’re seeing. There has to be an accounting.” Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill) said, “Someone, someone in this administration has to accept responsibility. We can have border security without bullying. We can be safe without treating toddlers like terrorists,” and called for Nielsen’s resignation.

 

The boys trapped in the Tham Luang caves are now home with their families. At the end of July, U.S. federal officials said in court that 1,012 migrant parents had been reunited with their children. Six hundred other eligible children had not yet been reunified, and no details were offered on 914 minors deemed “ineligible” for reunification.

 

Don’t we feel like these, too, are our children? I do, and thousands of people who feel the same way are coming to their rescue: attorneys with the ACLU and KIND (Kids In Need of Defense), social workers and psychologists, neighbors offering rides and home hospitality to migrant families, and advocacy groups that are drafting corrective legislation and taking to the streets in protest. From the little girls on my block whose lemonade stand raised money for the ACLU to the caravan of Grannies Respond traveling to McAllen, Texas, where they held rallies and vigils with a message of human decency, Americans are standing up for these children and together with their parents.

 

It is important that we find and nurture hope in these hard times. Children themselves inspire me. On August 10, we hosted a youth-led March for Our Lives rally featuring students from Marjorie Douglas Stoneman High School who traveled by bus across the country to register young people to vote and educate them about elected officials who refuse to stand up to the NRA. On July 30, the U.S. Supreme Court denied the administration’s request to halt proceedings in a landmark lawsuit (Juliana v. United States) brought by young people who argue that government policies have exacerbated global climate change in violation of their constitutional rights and those of future generations.

 

And in July I spent a weekend near Jackson, Mississippi with the Encampment for Citizenship, whose youth spent the month learning about and creating participatory democracy. They visited the Civil Rights Museum in Jackson, the Emmett Till Interpretive Center in Sumner, and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice (aka Lynching Museum) in Montgomery, Alabama. They were guests of the Choctaw Nation and engaged in local community service. Then they planned an intergenerational weekend and shared with us adults what they had experienced. I am a mentor to my two buddies, Maryam and Bernice (see photo), who live in the NYC area, but they mentor me in hope.

Leader’s Message – “Becoming a Humanist” – Summer 2018

Mon, 07/02/2018 - 6:37pm

Twenty years ago this summer, I spent a week at The Mountain Retreat and Learning Center in Highlands, NC atop a peak of the Great Smoky Mountains. It was the second Summer Lay Leadership training offered by the American Ethical Union, and I had heard good reports from friends who participated in 1996. Since my family had abandoned me—son traveling in Europe before entering high school, daughter working as a camp counselor, and husband attending tax law conferences—I felt it was an opportunity to also get away from home and deepen my experience of Ethical Culture. Little did I know that by the end of the week I would seriously consider becoming an Ethical Culture Leader.

 

There have been times in my life, and I imagine in yours as well, when a path seems to be revealed, and a choice must be made. It can be subtle or strong. I’ve used the metaphor of the universe tossing pebbles against my window to get my attention. Sometimes it takes a boulder to come crashing through the pane. It’s easy to ignore an invitation to try something new when old routines and doubts prevail. And yet there is something exciting about change, especially when it holds a promise of transformation: becoming more fully oneself.

 

Lay leadership training that summer, in a setting of wide natural vistas and among people whom I came to love, awakened in me a longing to grow. It was an expansive and inclusive feeling that gained clarity of thought and intention. It remained as I discussed the future with trusted family and friends when I descended from The Mountain. Essential to my personal growth and professional development was The Humanist Institute.

 

For three years, I was a student in the Humanist Studies Program Class X, co-mentored by Ethical Culture Leader Jone Johnson Lewis and Dr. Harvey Sarles, professor of Cultural Studies & Comparative Literature at the University of Minnesota. Their pedagogical methodology was informed by Greek philosopher Socrates and pragmatist philosopher John Dewey. Our reading lists were long and our seminar discussions intense. Humanism came alive for me and I embraced it. Here was a philosophy—and, for me, a religion—for life.

 

Humanism has been defined in many ways since the first Humanist Manifesto was published in 1933, followed by Manifestoes II and III, in 1973 and 2003. Every practicing Humanist contributes to its meaning. My favorite definition is on the American Humanist Association’s website: “Humanism is a progressive lifestance that, without theism or other supernatural beliefs, affirms our ability and responsibility to lead meaningful, ethical lives capable of adding to the greater good of humanity.”

 

My study at The Humanist Institute was accepted as the equivalent of a Master of Divinity degree by Hebrew Union College, where I earned a Doctor of Ministry degree in pastoral care. I was also certified by the American Ethical Union as an Ethical Culture Leader. When the Humanist Institute called me back to co-mentor Class XV with Dr. Anthony Pinn, professor of religion at Rice University, I seized another opportunity to grow over the course of three years of seminars. I was also asked to serve as co-Dean with the late Carol Wintermute and later with Rev. David Breeden, Senior Minister, First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis.

 

At the beginning of 2018, The Humanist Institute joined with the American Humanist Association to establish the AHA Center for Education. It’s exciting to see the new opportunities this provides for all humanists. The Humanist Studies Program courses continue to run but students are no longer required to commit to three years of seminars. This provides a more flexible experience and exposure to more Humanist teachers and students. After completing the pre-requisite course, Course 101: The Humanist Lifestance, you are eligible to take any of the other courses or complete them all to become a Certified Humanist Professional.

 

This summer James Croft, Ethical Culture Leader at the Ethical Society of St. Louis, and I are looking forward to co-teaching the next Course 101 August 24-26 at the American Humanist Association (AHA) office in Washington, DC.  Over the weekend, we will address questions of personal meaning, worth, and significance in a naturalistic way through readings, films, and personal storytelling. Anyone interested in gaining a deeper understanding of humanism and how to apply Humanist values to their daily life is welcome to attend. You have nothing to lose and everything to gain, including become more fully yourself.

 

Leader’s Message – “June Is Torture Awareness Month” – June 2018

Sat, 05/12/2018 - 12:33pm

When you read this, Gina Haspel may be leading the Central Intelligence Agency. I hope not, but the political odds were in her favor. As Acting CIA Director, with over thirty years’ experience, Trump’s nominee was eminently qualified, but her claim, during her Senate Intelligence Committee hearing in May to have a “strong moral compass” was in serious doubt when she refused to answer whether or not she thought the CIA’s torture program developed under President George W. Bush after 9/11 was immoral.

 

“After 9/11, I didn’t look to go sit on the Swiss desk — I stepped up,” Haspel said. “I was not on the sidelines. I was on the front lines in the Cold War, and I was on the front lines in the fight against Al Qaeda.”

 

That fight employed brutal torture techniques, including waterboarding detainees, dousing them with ice water, forcing them to stay awake for as long as a week, and subjecting some to medically unnecessary rectal feeding. The program was ended in 2007 and its techniques prohibited by President Barack Obama in 2009. A report issued in 2014 by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence analyzing internal CIA documents related to the torture of terrorism suspects concluded that “the CIA’s use of its enhanced interrogation techniques was not an effective means of acquiring intelligence or gaining cooperation from detainees” and that “multiple CIA detainees fabricated information, resulting in faulty intelligence.”

 

“Having served in that tumultuous time,” Haspel said, “I can offer you my personal commitment, clearly and without reservation, that under my leadership, C.I.A. will not restart such a detention and interrogation program.”

 

When asked if she would stand up to Trump, who apparently believes that torture works, should he order her to resume that program, she replied, “I do not believe the president would ask me to do that,” adding, “I would not restart under any circumstances an interrogation program at C.I.A.” We can only hope that this is true; the evidence isn’t convincing.

 

June was declared Torture Awareness Month by human rights and faith organizations because on June 26, 1987, the nations of the world took a major step against the immoral practice of torture by establishing the Convention Against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT). The United Nations later declared June 26th the International Day in Support of Victims of Torture.

 

Why, one wonders, in spite of overwhelming evidence that torture is ineffective in eliciting reliably truthful information, does it persist? In February 2016, forty-two retired generals and admirals wrote in a letter to presidential candidates, “Torture violates our core values as a nation. Our greatest strength is our commitment to the rule of law and to the principles embedded in our Constitution. Our servicemen and women need to know that our leaders do not condone torture of any kind.”

 

Former prisoner of the Vietnam War and the chair of the Armed Services Committee John McCain was brutally tortured for more than five years but refused early release unless other captives were also freed. In a statement he made last month, he said that Haspel’s “refusal to acknowledge torture’s immorality is disqualifying,” urging his colleagues to vote against her. “As I have argued many times, the methods we employ to keep our nation safe must be as right and just as the values we aspire to live up to and promote in the world.”

 

In response, White House aide Kelly Sadler joked, “It doesn’t matter. He’s dying anyway.” Tragically, this is the kind of callous remark we have come to expect from an administration whose chief once said, in declaring that McCain was not a war hero, that he preferred “people who weren’t captured,”

 

The 2014 statement on National Security, Intelligence, and Interrogation Professionals defined torture as “a manifestation of atavistic impulses to denigrate, subjugate, and dehumanize individuals perceived to pose a threat to indivuals’ or society’s safety. It is primitive, unreasoned, and an affirmation of anger.” There is no place for such immorality in our world.

 

To learn more about Torture Awareness Month and to join the effort to end the torture of solitary confinement in U.S. prisons, visit the National Religious Campaign Against Torture at http://www.nrcat.org/.