Smells Like Old Spirit

China! Have no idea how to write it down without rambling … but something deeply troubles me and there is no easy way around or out of it. It troubles me a lot, it creates a huge challenge and also brings a certain sense of helplessness.

In the West, we are very worried about the rise of authoritarianism in many places around the world, including in our midst. But there is another large elephant in the room – what about about the dilemma and conundrum of our dealings with the Communist government in China? The system and power which reminds the Chinese people who is in charge and plans to stay in charge and tells the rest of the world “Stay out of it if you want our business”. And, oh, we want and need that business.

If you are an American reading my blog, this has nothing to do with the current trade wars between the US and China because you may have noticed that the human rights, liberty and democracy question is not even on the table. All we hear is talk of money and superpower competition. If you are an Asian, you have your own strong opinions which I am familiar with after having lived in Southeast Asia for many years. It is always difficult to be the smaller and weaker neighbor next to a regional hegemony and world superpower. Just ask the people in Vietnam, Thailand, Myanmar, Cambodia, etc…

Remember Francis Fukuyama and his famous (or by now infamous?) 1989 thesis of The End of History? Well, this “end” is turning into the “same old, same old”. My personal strong emotions and reflections come from the fact that I still remember my childhood and the life in the USSR – a totally oppressive and repressive system – and for those  who know what it smells, tastes and feels like, there is a strong aversion to these kinds of manifestations of power, manipulation, abuse and denial of freedom.

I also remember the propaganda and how hard the Soviet regime tried to manufacture a pretty image of a happy society. especially to the outside world. And I sense such a familiar spirit when I think of China  and when I watch how carefully and masterfully it manufactures and lobbies its image around the world  as the most “peace loving, truthful, pragmatic, benevolent, long-term thinking, secure, wealth producing and well-wishing” government. There are too many cracks in this facade.

And through those cracks, if we care to know and look carefully, we know that all is not what it seems. But these days we have to look hard because we don’t hear these stories in our media. Every once in a while there may be an article about the oppression of ethnic Uighur, a primarily Muslim group in Xinjiang province. We can read the reports about “re-education” camps and massive abuses of human rights. Or we can read the stories about the escalating crackdown on personal religious freedom and religious groups . In case it has completely escaped your attention, read this article by the Washington Post.

It has nothing to do with my personal Chinese friends whom I love and cherish. It has nothing to do with the amazing culture, history, cuisine, hard work, entrepreneurship and simply amazing people and the beautiful country of China. I have been privileged to visit it and have my claim of having walked on the Great Wall. And I certainly hope to return because there is so much more to see and to learn.

But what about those things that the Chinese government does not want the rest of the world to see? Working very hard to keep this poster image and somehow succeeding. What about the proponents of the ‘liberalism’ theory of international relations which proposes that the Western liberal values will get planted and automatically bring fruit in places like China through closer ties, trade and co-operation? Is it really working out??? I wish it was. I am no expert on Chinese politics but from what I can hear, read and sense, instead of the liberal values gaining momentum, the system is cracking down and making another hard effort to convince the Chinese people and the rest of the world that exchanging your freedom, including your faith convictions, for some kind of national security, financial gain and state control is a perfectly good way for the future.

Last night I went to hear a lecture by an American historian Stephen Kotkin and few things he said triggered this post because it reminded why many things in our Western approach to Chinese “capitalist” communism does not sit well with me. The most important question is always the personal one – even if my government will not criticize and speak out against these massive human rights abuses, I do have a voice. Small and insignificant but a voice.

After the lecture I had two short conversations and one person used the example of a woodpecker – how it keeps pecking and pecking and pecking until the branch or even the whole tree is hollow enough to come down. I would like to borrow this metaphor. So, while churches are getting closed down, people jailed for all kinds of political, ideological and religious reasons and minority ethnic groups being “Sinicized” in China, we need to keep pecking and pecking… that it is not OK and that we refuse to accept it as the new ‘normal’.

 

Wrestling with the antisemitism of the past and of the present

I have wanted to write this for a while but kept postponing… and tried to understand why?! One of the simple explanations is that it is extremely difficult to write about national shame, inhumane ideologies, ordinary people with extraordinary hatred or indifference. It is difficult to say something about all of this without too many cliches, too much moralizing and too little personal reflection. But I will try to put my finger on a few very important and timely things…

November 30 is coming up and in Latvia it marks another remembrance day – the mass killings of Jewish people on November 30, 1941 in Rumbula forest near Riga. I don’t want to give the facts and statistics of how it happened or how many thousands got killed. There is plenty of information available online, plus I have written before how we as a society in Latvia are still in the process of talking about, reflecting upon and learning from these very painful and shameful events of our past.

In many ways here in Latvia we are on a very steep curve of learning and remembering while it seems that many people in Europe and around the world are on the downhill slope of unlearning and forgetting. Of course, not everyone in Latvia wants to know, to understand and to change their views or assumptions, but it is getting harder and harder to ignore it. There are more museums, more books, more media attention, more and more people who care to know.

This year we even have the first Latvian feature film about the Holocaust in Latvia which tells the true story of one amazing family, Lipke, in Riga who risked their lives to save more than 50 Latvian Jews during WWII. There were many others who were rescuers but Lipke family has their own unique story. (The English title of this new movie is “The Mover“.)

So, the movie is in the theaters, the remembrance day and lighting the candles at Freedom Monument takes place on November 30… meanwhile I turn on the news and watch programs about the rise of new kind of antisemitism in Europe and elsewhere. It is on the far-right and the far-left and many shades of it in-between. And I ask myself what is going on?!

The experts – sociologists, psychologists, political analysts, historians, journalists, etc. – have their own wise explanations and we can easily find the research and survey data. But what does it tell me personally? For one, it tells that we live in a very fragile time filled with so much anxiety where many of the old mechanisms of dealing with insecurity, instability, rapid global technological and cultural change are being used. One of the classical methods is finding the scapegoat whom to blame for everything. “The Jew” is just so familiar and easy to revert to, but it can be “the Muslim”, “the Russian”, ” the immigrant”, “the black”, “the Mexican”, “the Christian”…

That is why I think antisemitism is also on the rise in those countries where the governing parties are very pro-Israel but very prejudiced against many different groups of people. In this sense any rise of nationalism is a rise of antisemitism. When we talk about ‘making our countries great again’ by which people often mean going back to some kind of ‘ideal’ past and ‘romanticized’ cultural identity we used to have, we are already on this downward slope. It is a whole package where it is very hard to pick and choose our prejudices for this kind of pride comes with strings attached.

The experts mention that many people would be classified as ‘antisemitic’ because they hate the policies of the current state of Israel, especially toward the Palestinian people. I do not support this hatred in any way. Still,  I understand a little bit about not liking a certain countries policies and the struggle to separate the issue. For example, I have many negative feelings and strong opinions about the current politics, ideologies and state of affairs in Russia and it is not easy for me to look at the Russian flag as something neutral or accept people who are very proudly Russian and nationalistic. I immediately start wondering if they support Putin or “Make Russia great again” which would put them in the ” other” camp. Some years ago I would have never imagined that my generation will have to have these inner struggles again of how to love the Russian people from our neighboring country while strongly opposing that country’s political direction.

I am very concerned that we forget so quickly… we forget the Holocaust, we forget Rwanda, we forget Cambodia, we forget the Apartheid.. We forget that every generation has their own ‘demons’ to face which often try to appear as the ‘angels’ or ‘idols’ of ethnic, religious, racial or national identity, infallibility, stability and self-protection…

As we continue to pray in our own brokenness: “lead us not into temptation and deliver us from evil…”

(The heading photo was taken at Riga Ghetto Museum and this exhibit tells the story of European Jews who were transported from various countries to  be shot and killed in Latvia)

Image result for teva nakts photos

Photo from “The Mover” (2018), a movie about the Holocaust in Latvia

 

Ask Latvians about the Corner House and take time to listen

This museum  – the former KGB headquarters in Rīga – is not for the disinterested or the deeply traumatized by Latvia’s totalitarian past. In the first group, you quickly realize that this is a very somber space. Every room has soaked up fears, tears and witnessed intimidation, humiliation, broken lives and tortured consciences… For the second group, it is still too difficult and painful to be inside these walls.

The building is a nice example of Art Nouveau architecture, built in 1911 and has served many purposes, but for most of the people in Latvia, it is simply The Corner House. If there was any address that people feared being taken to during the Soviet regime, it was this street corner! The Corner!

Now the otherwise beautiful building has been repainted but the face-lift is on the outside. For many years it stood empty and ignored (and it is still an open question what to do with it). I first visited the Corner House and the KGB prison cells in 2014 when it opened its heavy and intimidating doors to the visitors – local and foreign. First I joined a tour guide speaking in English and got to hear the story as if I was an ‘outsider’. It is a very interesting and revealing experience to try to see your own story with ‘outsider’s’ eyes. At times I wanted to correct the guide if I felt she was not telling the story “correctly” but I resisted this temptation. There is no “correct” way of telling the story but it is important to get the facts as straight as possible and let the people draw conclusions by themselves.

Second time I went to the Corner House together with my grandmother. She was never arrested or imprisoned but she knew people who had been held and tortured by the KGB in these prison cells. This time it was a Latvian speaking group and completely different experience. I could see lots of emotions in my grandmother’s face and those from the older generations. They politely listened to the guide’s stories even though it was difficult to avoid some interruptions and comments. The older generation has lots and lots of stories for anyone who is willing to listen.

The younger visitors were at times visibly shocked. They walked through the cellar as this was a movie. When we went to the upper floors where the KGB operatives and interrogators had their nice and sunny offices, our attention was drawn to the window bars. Installed to make sure that nobody jumps out the window from the 4th or 5th floor! It speaks for itself what kind of place this was where people would try to jump and rather kill themselves.

The English and Latvian speaking tours were very different but both had to do with memories and remembering. How to remember rightly? What do we tell the foreigners and what do we want them to know and to reflect upon? What do we tell Latvians and how do we want to remember this period? How to address and heal the pain of those who suffered from the KGB? How to bring peace to those who ‘broke’ and became KGB informants?  What brings redemption to those who worked for the KGB?

The Corner House does not intimidate anymore but somehow it still casts a dark shadow. And it stands there as a big question mark, “what are we going to do with this KGB past?” My answer? It is more than time for Latvia to turn this particular corner!

The truth shall set us free and it will help us to heal. And I am happy that the process has begun…

Funeral like no other making love great again

One Lord. One Faith. One Baptism.

I could not get my eyes off this pulpit. And could not turn off my TV for hours even though it was getting late (or early morning) here in Latvia. I had just been changing  the channels to watch some news and found that CNN was showing Aretha Franklin’s memorial service in Detroit at Greater Grace Temple.

The event lasted seven hours!!! I wonder how many of us have been to a funeral this long. And one that did not feel like grieving but like Easter morning church service. In the beginning the TV anchors followed the script and inserted some breaking news (like Trump’s trade wards with Canada) but soon they realized this event is not going along any script. This was a celebration of life which ignored all the ” protocol” of time and schedule. The CNN reporter laughed and said, “We are already 3 hours behind schedule” and then they just let the cameras roll without any further interruptions.

I have never visited an African American church but this was a beautiful glimpse into what it means to be a community that celebrates life (birth, death, joys and sorrows) and faith in the fullest. With passion, emotion, laughter, tears and ever present hope.

Oh my, can they sing!!! The preachers go up to talk and suddenly bust into a song. (I have never seen my pastor do that 🙂 )The singers don’t just sing a song but tell a story with their whole body and the audience responds. The choir is ready at any moment and don’t need a conductor; the band can improvise for hours; the audience can jump up on their feet at random and start moving, shouting, dancing. There were people falling asleep after sitting through so many speeches and eulogies but suddenly they would be wide awake when there was a soulful song or some rousing statement.

And there were many rousing statements. It revealed again and again that the legacy of someone like Aretha Franklin was not just her amazing powerful voice and memorable music but it was a legacy of human dignity, strength, love, civility, solidarity and, of course, respect for each other. R-E-S-P-EC-T

Many civil rights activists were speaking as were famous artists, actors and former presidents. Barack Obama sent a letter in which he wrote, “Whether bringing people together through thrilling intersections of genres or advancing important causes through the power of song, Aretha’s work reflected the very best of the American story, in all of its hope and heart, its boldness and its unmistakable beauty… In the example she set both as an artist and a citizen, Aretha embodied those most revered virtues of forgiveness and reconciliation.”

Last one to perform was Stevie Wonder and he played a beautiful rendition of “Lord’s Prayer” on his harmonica. “Were it not for God’s goodness, God’s greatness, we would’ve never known the queen of soul,” he said. And he talked about “making love great again”.

He finished with his song “As” written in 1976 and the whole place exploded with celebration…

“We all know sometimes life’s hates and troubles
Can make you wish you were born in another time and space
But you can bet you life times that and twice its double
That God knew exactly where he wanted you to be placed
So make sure when you say you’re in it but not of it
You’re not helping to make this earth a place sometimes called Hell
Change your words into truths and then change that truth into love
And maybe our children’s grandchildren
And their great-great grandchildren will tell
I’ll be loving you ”

(P.S. I highly recommend watching the recording of the service on You Tube! It will inspire you!)

 

 

Platitudes of peace and unity in Korea and one Latvian’s view on it

The 2018 Winter Olympics are called “Peace games” but somehow this message does not stick easily. As my blog page tells, I am all for using every and any platform for peace building, common good, diplomacy, solidarity and sports is one of those forms of fun and entertainment which brings people together. Just like kicking the football will win you instant friends among children from any neighborhood around the world. I could tell so many stories from travels and work where sports was the bridge between cultures, even so called ‘enemies’.

But ‘peace’ is not abstract. It is not a word. It is a state well-being which involves many things. Truth, justice, forgiveness, freedom, choice among them.

And because of this I can assume that the message of these ‘peaceful’ Winter Olympic Games remains totally abstract for most people in North Korea who are supposed to be one of the main recipients and beneficiaries of this message. First of all, the games are not broadcast in North Korea, even with 22 North Korean athletes competing. This is easy to understand – why would the regime show people how South Korea can host such a world event and all the technical, economic and democratic achievements across the border?!

The North Korean people do not need spectacular ‘peace doves’ or over-used John Lennon songs like “Imagine” (I am sorry if you think it is one of the greatest ‘peace songs’ ever written, but I simply disagree with the lyrics and, to be honest, I am tired of it. If we really want universal ‘unity’ anthems, we need new songs to inspire our hearts and minds in this day and age.)

Another reason why all this makes me sad and angry is because I have seen it before. Growing up in the USSR, we were raised to believe that we live in the most peace loving nation in the world and that every other system is oppressive, racist and violent. I know what it’s like to live behind the ‘curtain’ and to be told lies about the life on the other side of it. Even worse, to be told lies about the life we ourselves were living. It is hard to accept that in 2018 there are millions of people who live in this kind of ‘cage’ and prison.

And the injustice continues. The gate keepers get to travel, to act like they care, to pretend they are interested in real peace for their people. The sister of Kim Jong-un gets to sit in the VIP box at the opening ceremony and I can only imagine how most of defectors from North Korea felt watching it. I know how I felt. We talk about ‘interests’ of our free nations or Kim Jong-un and his regimes ‘interests’ and I certainly worry about the tensions and nuclear weapons but what about the people of North Korea? What about the people of South Korea?

The North Korean athletes get to go to South Korea, they get to see and experience things that millions of other North Korean people cannot even dream about but they are still prisoner’s who are just let out for few days and they are on a very short and tight ‘leash’. You can already guess that there are more secret service staff than athletes. How many people are watching each athlete? Do you believe that North Korean athletes get to actually hang out with other athletes and form new friendships? Do you think the women on the united hockey team get to be left alone and freely talk? No way! Even without the staff or officials, they cannot talk freely because they are made to inform on each other.

Can you imagine how many ‘interviews’ and ‘reports’ they will have to give upon returning home? This totalitarian system of spying and informing on your colleagues, friends and family is one of the most painful scars that our nation of Latvia bears and we are still struggling to reconcile with this past. It has done something horrible to our collective and individual soul. And multiply it when you think about North Korea.

And what about South Korea? If you follow the surveys and research, you will see that the younger generation in South Korea has more reservations about the prospect of future ‘unification’ of two Koreas. The reasons are many but among them economic and financial. If the two Koreas will one day unite, the South will have to cover the bill and it will be trillions of dollars.

I believe that this ‘wall’ will fall in our life time but I also know that it will be only beginning of hard work toward reconciliation and unity. It is easy to win ‘war’, but it is very hard to win ‘peace’. Still, there is no alternative. The people of divided Korea need it and the rest of us will have to help but no more platitudes like “above us only sky… imagine all the people living for today”, please.

Season of Advent reminds us why universal declaration of human rights still matters

Universal declaration of human rights? United nations? International cooperation? International order? Preventing wars? Striving for peace? Respecting human dignity? It is almost 70 years since this declaration was proclaimed and yet it is hard to shake the impression that many people/nations/leaders could care less…

I look up at the calendar on my kitchen wall and there it is – December 10 as Human Rights Day. I go to Facebook and there it is again – you can click ‘Like’ or share it on your wall. (I did not share it since I did not like the design. Or maybe I am just tired of online activism where we post slogans, memes, famous quotes, provocative statements and anything else to “make this world a better place”. But here I am writing this blog. I guess at the end of the day it is still better to add my voice to issues I deeply care about.)

This Sunday is also a religious celebration of Second Advent. In the Christian tradition and calendar it is a time of waiting and preparation. Waiting for the Hope and Light of the world to be born in a seemingly hopeless and dark place and welcoming this coming with open heart and mind. We sing “Oh come, oh come, Emmanuel” and we do it every year. Why keep saying it if we believe He has come already?  There are many theological reasons but one simple reason I can give is we need to remind ourselves what this life and this world is like without Him.

It is amazing how quickly we get used to the good news, things and good times and take it for granted. It is also amazing how quickly we can descend into hopelessness and darkness again.

For very long time now, we take Jesus of Nazareth and the way he transforms our human existence for granted. Nowadays we also take the Universal declaration of human rights for granted. We cannot imagine a world without these commonly accepted principles because most of us did not live before 1948 and during Second World War. We, at least the Westerners, are so used to speaking about our human rights that we think nothing of it.

But here I read the lines from the declaration’s preamble: “The advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people.

(…) Whereas it is essential to promote the development of friendly relations between nations.

Whereas the peoples of the United Nations have in the Charter reaffirmed their faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person and in the equal rights of men and women and have determined to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom,

Whereas Member States have pledged themselves to achieve, in co-operation with the United Nations, the promotion of universal respect for and observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms,

Whereas a common understanding of these rights and freedoms is of the greatest importance for the full realization of this pledge,

Now, Therefore THE GENERAL ASSEMBLY proclaims THIS UNIVERSAL DECLARATION OF HUMAN RIGHTS as a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations, to the end that every individual and every organ of society, keeping this Declaration constantly in mind, shall strive by teaching and education to promote respect for these rights and freedoms and by progressive measures, national and international, to secure their universal and effective recognition and observance, both among the peoples of Member States themselves and among the peoples of territories under their jurisdiction.”

Have we achieved and experienced the advent of this kind of world yet? Are all people free to speak their mind, practice their religion, free from fear and want? Are we, the peoples of United Nations, keeping our pledge? Do we even believe in this larger freedom? Do we still have common understanding and emphasize the word “common”? Or are we putting our trust in the world of “mine”? My country. My people. My rights.

The answer is obvious. Thus we are still waiting, still striving and longing…

“O come, Thou Wisdom from on high,
And order all things, far and nigh;
To us the path of knowledge show,
And cause us in her ways to go.

O come, Desire of nations, bind
All peoples in one heart and mind;
Bid envy, strife and quarrels cease;
Fill the whole world with heaven’s peace.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel”

 

 

Rohingya and soul searching in Myanmar

Myanmar is making international headlines again and the news is not good. Tragedy for the thousands and thousands of people who are losing their homes, ancestral land, possessions and fleeing to neighboring country Bangladesh… hundreds are also losing their lives and their loved ones. The story of Rohingya ethnic minority has repeated through the years but the current crisis is a new low.

Myanmar (Burma) holds a special place in my heart. Peaceroads was inspired by my friends from this beautiful but broken country. We have spent many hours talking, working and praying for peace, freedom, restoration and reconciliation in this nation. Many are already experiencing peace and freedom but not everyone. Not yet … and it will take even longer now.

It is racism but this is not just about race. It is religious but this is not just about religion (most Rohingya are Muslim minority in a predominantly Buddhist country). Nationalism, economics, politics, military power, etc… It is complicated, yes, and long story. There are violent and angry people on all sides, yes, and someone’s freedom fighter is someone else’ terrorist. We don’t know all the facts, yes, and Myanmar government accuses international media of misinformation (while not allowing them access to the conflict area!). Still, many facts are too obvious, stories are real, pictures speak for themselves and there is suffering for the whole world to see.

This is why international community is reacting with such sadness, criticism and challenge to the current leaders of Myanmar. For decades and decades people and governments in democratic countries supported the long journey toward freedom, dignity and rights of the people of Burma, including demand to release Aung Sun Suu Kyi from house arrest and let her lead the nation. Now many of the Nobel Peace Prize laureates are challenging her to speak out, act fast and defend the rights of ALL people.

I deeply care about real and lasting reconciliation in Myanmar and right now it is facing a dangerous moment. There are plenty of evil forces that are ready to exploit this fault line and make it even more violent (Al Qaeda, ISIS and other such groups are looking at this as a new cause to support). It is like a perfect storm brewing if there is no immediate and courageous national leadership and brave decisions. It also requires a deep soul searching in the whole society – who is this country for, who is my neighbor?

I am no expert but I know enough about Myanmar’s pain of the past, the struggles of today and the hopes for the future. This is not just about human rights; this is about right human relationships. How will these communities live? What will happen to these displaced people? If they are allowed return, how do they rebuild their lives? What will make them feel safe, protected and wanted? What about justice? What about forgiveness?

I want to copy an open letter by Desmond Tutu, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, which expresses many of my own thoughts…

“My dear Aung San Su Kyi

I am now elderly, decrepit and formally retired, but breaking my vow to remain silent on public affairs out of profound sadness about the plight of the Muslim minority in your country, the Rohingya.

In my heart you are a dearly beloved younger sister. For years I had a photograph of you on my desk to remind me of the injustice and sacrifice you endured out of your love and commitment for Myanmar’s people. You symbolised righteousness. In 2010 we rejoiced at your freedom from house arrest, and in 2012 we celebrated your election as leader of the opposition.

Your emergence into public life allayed our concerns about violence being perpetrated against members of the Rohingya. But what some have called ‘ethnic cleansing’ and others ‘a slow genocide’ has persisted – and recently accelerated. The images we are seeing of the suffering of the Rohingya fill us with pain and dread.

We know that you know that human beings may look and worship differently – and some may have greater firepower than others – but none are superior and none inferior; that when you scratch the surface we are all the same, members of one family, the human family; that there are no natural differences between Buddhists and Muslims; and that whether we are Jews or Hindus, Christians or atheists, we are born to love, without prejudice. Discrimination doesn’t come naturally; it is taught.

My dear sister: If the political price of your ascension to the highest office in Myanmar is your silence, the price is surely too steep. A country that is not at peace with itself, that fails to acknowledge and protect the dignity and worth of all its people, is not a free country.

It is incongruous for a symbol of righteousness to lead such a country; it is adding to our pain.

As we witness the unfolding horror we pray for you to be courageous and resilient again. We pray for you to speak out for justice, human rights and the unity of your people. We pray for you to intervene in the escalating crisis and guide your people back towards the path of righteousness again.

God bless you.

Love

Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu

Hermanus, South Africa”

tutu

photos from internet