Works in Progress: My latest tattoo and I


Huffington Post version of blog HERE

Neither one of us are particularly religious, this tattoo and I. We are decided works in progress– raw still, easily irritated, gloriously incomplete. Both of us. Lumped together like that, our flaws make us a perfect match for one another as well as for our makers. That is, God and Lui Renzo.

I was working in New York City last week and Renzo is a crazy talented tattoo artist in Secaucus, New Jersey, just west of the Lincoln Tunnel. A day earlier I’d asked if he could ink three Hawaiian words (pule ‘ole ho’opau) onto my left forearm. He reacted as if I’d raked fingernails across a blackboard.

“Yeah, I could. … But you’d be destroying prime real estate.”

To tattoo lovers and artists the wide open stretch elbow to wrist is a beautiful canvas begging for expression. It’s one of the few areas on the body where something personal and meaningful can be permanently sewn and seen straight-on by the person wearing it. No mirrors, no circus flexibility, no selfies required. From the forearm a tattoo stares up at you. A constant reminder.

I reviewed Renzo’s art, a diverse portfolio collected through five years of professional work. On his own left forearm is a finely detailed black and white of the Virgin Mary and Baby Jesus. At age 35, Renzo, a Catholic who grew up rough in New Jersey and Puerto Rico, has evolved into the archetype renaissance man. He’s worked as a truck driver, waiter, cook, reggaeton musician, barber, and, until the predator nature of the sales world clashed with his ethics and morals, as a $30 per-hour Verizon salesman. Today, he inks meaningful works of art or words into the skin of strangers.

Renzo at work.

Loosely translated “pule ‘ole ho’opau” means to pray without ceasing. I’m not a biblical scholar by any means, nor am I what anyone who attends church would call religious. When asked about religious affiliation on websites I leave the spot blank or write, “It’s complicated.” But my Baptist father told me I should never throw the baby out with the bath water, and I believe much of New Testament scripture to be profound regardless of the religious fraternity you pledge. The Apostle Paul’s advice in First Thessalonians is an ideal example. In it, Paul encourages the early Christians to be patient, caring and loving, to never return evil with evil, and to rejoice and be grateful always and in all things. This stuff applies to everyone. 

For me, First Thessalonians 5:17 sums it up beautifully and succinctly: “Pray without ceasing.”

In book talks and lectures I often explain how that verse reminds me to be more aware of how my words, thoughts and actions affect others. For the better, hopefully, but far too often, for the worst. Long ago, when I was a Native Hawaiian Affairs reporter in Honolulu, a revered healer from the Big Island explained to me how he is unable to cure the sick of anything if he is not pono at that very moment. He described pono as a state of perfect righteousness– right in word, right in thought, right in action. For most or all people, the religious and non-religious alike, Christian, Buddhist, Jew, Muslim, agnostic or atheist, pono waxes and wanes. It can be strengthened and maintained only through dogged awareness and vigilance.

Three miles west of the Lincoln Tunnel in a small tattoo parlor named Our Lady of Ink, I explained some of this to Renzo and told him how I do not believe Paul is saying that we should always walk around with our eyes closed, heads bowed. Just the opposite. To me, Paul is saying we should keep our eyes open, our minds focused, and that we should live in a state of blessed awareness. Live pono, that’s what Paul was saying long before I met the kahuna on the Big Island.

In Renzo’s portfolio one tattoo jumped out at me. Praying hands. The detail was phenomenal. He explained how it was the only tattoo of praying hands that he’d ever done. He’d drawn them just once.

“If you can duplicate that first effort,” I told him, “I’ll have you put it on my arm’s prime real estate.”

He thought about it for a few seconds.

“I can’t duplicate it. … I’ll do better. I always get better the second time.”

Today, a Lui Renzo Original points up at me lovingly and points me in the right direction. That’s not saying I will always follow the direction (I’ve already screwed up every which way from Sunday) but I can’t overlook the advice or easily disregard it.

Like me, the tattoo remains a work in progress. One day soon I will return for Renzo to add pule ‘ole ho’opau to it as well as the names of two people who look up to me as a role model– for better and for worst. My sons.That’s a reminder I need to carry with me (and on me) daily.

The finished product. For now.

Open invitation extended to Trump from co-founder of Iraq’s Muslim Peacemaker Teams

Muslim Peacemaker Teams founder Sami Rasouli and family Najaf, Iraq December 2015

Muslim Peacemaker Teams co-founder Sami Rasouli and family in Najaf, Iraq

The following letter is an open invitation extended to Republican presidential contender Donald Trump from Iraqi-American Sami Rasouli, co-founder of the Muslim Peacemakers Team:

Dear Mr. Donald Trump,

Warm greetings from Iraq. Although I became an American citizen in 2001 and lived for 25 years in Minneapolis, Minn., I returned to my native Iraq in 2003 to work for peace after my adopted country attacked my birth country.

As both an American and an Iraqi, my family and I would like to invite you and your family to visit us in Iraq for as long as you would like. We, and other Iraqi families, would be delighted to have you here as honored guests at our homes.

These guest visits are part of the cultural exchange program for Muslim Peacemaker Teams. They have been ongoing between citizens of Najaf, Iraq, and of Minneapolis since the two officially became “sister cities” in July 2009. The purpose of your visit would be educational in nature– focused on learning about Arab-Islamic culture, including opportunities to visit Iraq’s major historical cities, such as Babylon, and its holy cities, such as Najaf, Karbala and Baghdad. You would learn about Hammurabi, who wrote the first code of law, and you would visit the countryside in the South, where an Iraqi woman invented the wheel 3,000 years ago.

Conversely, you would also witness how Iraq has been largely destroyed since 2003 by the ongoing U.S. military presence here. We could show you how ISIS is smuggling oil out of our country and tell you who is laundering it for the funds that support terrorism.

I’m not rich, Mr. Trump, but my family and I are renting a house in Najaf, the holy Shia city where I was born. Our home is small, cozy and full of love. You would stay with us and share what we have. In addition, there are other Iraqi families who would love the opportunity to host you and treat you as family.

In Najaf I assure you that you would find that we (a so-called infidel visiting terrorists) are all brothers and sisters sharing the same bread and the same universe. You would learn how our peoples, including the Jewish, share the Old Testament as the foundation of our respective religions. We have far more values in common than we have differences. We are all “people of the Book.” We could even take you to Ur, where Abraham was born, to Jonas’ tomb near Mosul, to Daniel’s tomb near Babylon, and to the monastery founded by Saint Matthew.

Such a visit from you would counter the negative stereotypes about Muslims and help to discredit those in the United States who promote Islamophobia. We fear most what we do not understand, and the visit we offer would deepen your insights and perceptions about the part of the world we all call home.

In return, should you accept our offer to visit Najaf, my family and I would gladly visit you in New York or Vegas. We would even spend money and have fun– despite the fact that our faith as Muslims bans us from entering the “Sin City.” But, for you, we would break the rules. All you need is to purchase your plane ticket, and we will gladly cover the cost of everything else.

I know you’re busy with the presidential campaign, so, if you understandably can’t make it at the present time, our offer remains open for you to visit us at any time you choose.

But no matter when you would visit, Mr. Trump, I guarantee you this: You would fall in love with Arab-Islamic culture. Aside from superficial cultural differences, our peoples and their desires are very similar. You would feel at home among us.

As a politician and businessman you know that the resolution of conflict begins and ends with educated and open minds sharing meaningful, productive discussion. Our offer to you is an opportunity to resolve global conflict. Please give it thoughtful consideration.

Happy New Years,

Sami Rasouli
Muslim Peacemaker Teams, Najaf, Iraq

American ‘tithing’ to Israel funds murderous 2014 for Palestinians

Credit: Tyler Hicks, New York Times, 16 July 2014. The aftermath of an Israeli airstrike in July on a beach in Gaza City. Four young Palestinian boys, all cousins, were killed.

Credit: Tyler Hicks, New York Times, 16 July 2014.
The aftermath of an Israeli airstrike in July on a beach in Gaza City. Four young Palestinian boys, all cousins, were killed.

A headline yesterday in Israel’s Haaretz newspaper reported findings from the United Nations about violence in 2014 between Israelis and Palestinians. “UN report: 2014 saw the most Palestinians killed by Israel’s military since ‘67.” The subhead read: “Israeli security forces killed 2,312 Palestinians, most in the Gaza war over the summer. Roughly two-thirds were civilians.”

So, let’s break this down. That’s 2,314 Palestinians killed last year by Israel (at least 64% were civilians) versus 85 Israelis killed by Palestinians (less than 8% civilian). Those stats are not propaganda put out by, say, Hamas. These numbers are from the United Nations. Not mentioned but glaringly evident is this fact: The lopsided carnage is fueled in large part by Washington’s annual tithe of $3.1 billion American tax dollars to Israel given so that its “best friend” in the Middle East can protect(?) itself.

Think people, think! If Israel is the best or only friend that the United States has in the Middle East it’s because Washington and Wall Street bankroll Israel’s gross aggression and ongoing human rights abuses. For the love of God, Allah, Jehovah, Yahweh, Whomever, Whatever, Wherever, stop the madness. For starters, contact your representative in Congress (find their phone numbers and emails HERE) and tell them to stop using your taxes to fund Israeli aggression.

For those who can’t see the full Haaretz story at this link HERE, below is the story cut and pasted:

UN report: 2014 saw the most Palestinians killed by Israel’s military since ‘67

By Amira Hass | Mar. 27, 2015 | HAARETZ

The number of Palestinian civilians killed by the Israel Defense Forces in the West Bank and Gaza Strip last year topped 1,500 — the highest number since the occupation began in 1967. By most other measures, the Palestinians’ lives under the occupation also took a turn for the worse, as reflected in the annual overview by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

The 2014 report released Thursday is entitled “Fragmented Lives.” It translates into numbers the sense of a severe decline in the Palestinians’ personal and communal security.

The report notes higher casualties, a greater use of live ammunition to put down demonstrations in the West Bank, increased numbers of Palestinians displaced from their homes — both in Gaza and the West Bank — increased numbers of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails, and a greater number of incidents in which settlers injured Palestinians. The comparison is to the two previous years.

There was also an increase in the number of incidents in which Palestinians injured settlers. By other measures such as freedom of movement and access to land there was no particular deterioration, but the violation of these rights was still apparent.

James Rawley, the coordinator of humanitarian affairs for the occupied territories, noted that without these Israeli violations there would be no need for the humanitarian aid sent by countries around the world.

All told, last year Israeli security forces killed 2,312 Palestinians — 2,256 Gazans and 56 residents of the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Another two Palestinians were killed by other Israelis, putting the number of Palestinians killed at 2,314.

In Israel’s war against Hamas and its allies in Gaza last summer, 2,220 Gazans were killed. According to a UN task force, 1,492 of them were civilians, including 551 children and 299 women.

The report does not mention how many of those killed in the West Bank and Jerusalem were unarmed civilians and how many were killed on suspicion they had harmed Israelis or were killed during attacks on Israelis.

According to the report, 85 Israelis were killed; 66 soldiers during the Gaza war, when four Israeli civilians including one child were killed in Israel. In the West Bank and Jerusalem, 15 Israelis were killed by Palestinians, but it was not noted how many were civilians or members of the security forces.

Last year 17,125 Palestinians were wounded — more than 11,000 from IDF weapons fire in Gaza. (The tally of Palestinian wounded does not include victims of shock and emotional trauma.)

In the West Bank and East Jerusalem, Israeli security forces wounded 6,028 Palestinians, 1,112 of them (18 percent) by live fire — a considerable increase in the use of live fire from previous years, the report notes.

In 2013, just 3 percent of Palestinians wounded in the West Bank were hit by live fire; in 2012 the number was 2 percent. Meanwhile, 43 percent of Palestinians wounded in 2014 were hit by rubber-coated bullets.

The largest number of wounded last year — although not from the use of live ammunition — was in Jerusalem: 2,850. The Hebron area ranked second at 1,150.

Damaged homes

Last year, 105 incidents in which Israelis harmed Palestinians and their property were documented, compared with 92 in 2013 and 98 in 2012. There was also a sharp increase in the number of reported incidents in which Palestinians harmed Israelis — 87, compared with 39 in 2013 and 35 in 2012.

Last year 5,258 Palestinians were jailed in Israel on suspicion of or convictions for security offenses, compared with 4,227 in 2013 and 4,451 in 2012. Also in 2014, the monthly average of administrative detainees not on trial or denied the right to present a defense rose to 327 from 132 in 2013 and 245 in 2012. The monthly average of Palestinian children detained by the army fell to 185 from 197.

Due to the Gaza war the number of Palestinians displaced from their homes increased sharply. All told, 9,465 homes were totally destroyed during the war (compared with 3,425 in the Gaza war in the winter of 2008-09).

Another 9,644 homes were heavily damaged and 98,421 were lightly damaged. At the end of December, 100,000 Gaza Palestinians were still living away from home in rental housing, UN shelters, tents or trailers. Due to the housing shortage, which the war worsened, Gaza needs the construction of about 100,000 housing units.

There was also an increase in the number of Palestinians in Area C (the West Bank area under full Israeli control) whose homes were demolished — 1,215, compared with 1,103 in 2013 and 879 in 2012. In East Jerusalem, 98 Palestinians lost their homes in 2014 due to house demolitions by the Jerusalem municipality, about the same number as in 2013.

In Area C there was a 31 percent rise in demolitions of Palestinian structures donated by European countries. The IDF and its Civil Administration destroyed 118 such structures in 2014 compared with 90 in 2013 and 79 in 2012.

On the other hand, there was a decline in the number of impounded humanitarian-aid items donated by international organizations — 25 impounded by the IDF and Civil Administration compared with 67 in 2013. The items were often water tanks, hygiene items and other sanitation supplies.

The report, which provides advice to Israel on changing its policy and actions, is even more targeted at other countries, most of which fund the activities of UN organizations. “Third states share responsibility for ensuring respect for international humanitarian law in the [occupied Palestinian territories] and for promoting compliance with human rights obligations,” the report states.

In what can be construed as a call for more concerted diplomatic action against Israel, the report adds that these third countries “should take all necessary actions stemming from that responsibility.”

Ben Gurion Airport is safe? The Monday explosion that’s missing from the discussion

Moments after a rocket scare in Terminal C of Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport. (Monday, July 21, 2014)

See the Huffington Post version HERE.

TEL AVIV – At 11:50 on Monday morning a scrum of passengers jockeying to board United Airlines Flight 85 from Tel Aviv to Newark fell silent when a warning echoed in Hebrew and Arabic through Ben Gurion Airport. Heads, and then heels, turned. The scrum morphed into a herd moving away from Terminal C’s vast windows and boarding gates.

Two seconds later the message repeated in English.

A security warning has sounded! Please follow normal procedure!

When Israel’s Iron Dome missiles greet Hamas’ rockets there’s a distinctive resonance– the kind of rich baritone you hear and feel. Under present circumstances, it’s oddly comforting. In the 12 days I traveled around the West Bank and Israel (July 9-21), residing beneath the arc of Israel’s sophisticated $100,000 Tamir interceptor missiles and Hamas’ crude $800 steel-cylinder Qassam rockets, I lost count of the number of times I relaxed into the familiar thunder.

However, I clearly recall the last loud clap. It occurred just before noon on Monday and originated overhead. Above Ben Gurion Airport.

In the time it takes for a rocket fired from Gaza to reach Tel Aviv – roughly 90 seconds as the hoopoe flies – the herd in Terminal C had put about 30 meters between itself and Gate 8. Nobody panicked. The brisk walk seemed no more frantic than a last-minute gate change.

Then … boom!

The herd didn’t blink. It turned on its heels and returned to its scrum at Gate 8. Meanwhile, a dozen or so early boarders and business-class travelers had sat comfortably –and apparently clueless – in United’s wide-body Boeing 777.

“There was an alarm?” my Israeli seat mate in row 20 asked after I boarded. “I guess ignorance is bliss, yes?”

Apparently. At least that seems to be the thinking of the Federal Aviation Administration, U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu, and Israeli Minister of Transportation Yisrael Katz. “Ben Gurion Airport is safe and there is no need to be worried about the security of airplanes and passengers,” Katz said on Tuesday, after a rocket landed one mile from airport runways and the FAA temporarily banned U.S. airlines from flying into or out of Tel Aviv.

Speaking into TV cameras and reporter microphones, Katz kept repeating himself, as if saying it enough times would make it true: “Ben Gurion Airport is safe. … There is no reason why airlines should stop their flights, handing a prize to terrorists.”

No reason? As Flight 85 ascended from Ben Gurion’s runway I could only hope it would not come between a missile and a rocket. This is safe?

According to The Washington Post, sometime on Tuesday night Netanyahu phoned Kerry to request help in lifting the travel banOf 3.54 million tourists to Israel last year, a record number that contributed $11.4 billion to its economy, 53 percent were defined by Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics as “Christian.” The Holy Land of Jerusalem is Israel’s big draw.

So, it came as no surprise, just hours after Kerry departed Israel today – declaring progress in securing a truce between Israel and Hamas – that the FAA cut short its 48-hour travel ban. I can’t imagine what Netanyahu offered behind closed doors. With no specific explanation or new evidence, the FAA adopted Katz’s oft-repeated (il)logic. Ben Gurion Airport was stamped “safe” again.

“[T]he FAA worked with its U.S. government counterparts to assess the security situation in Israel,” its press release stated, “and reviewed both significant new information and measures the Government of Israel is taking to mitigate potential risks to civil aviation.”

Oy vey.

Last Friday, as I was leaving a hotel in Jerusalem to travel to Tel Aviv, I ran into one of the last remaining Christian groups daring to tour Jerusalem even as Netanyahu promised an escalation in the ground fighting with Hamas. Tour members were with Snoqualmie Valley Alliance, a nondenominational church in Fall City, Wash., 30 miles east of Seattle.

“We’ve relied on our faith,” one member told me, explaining why the group had stayed its course in Jerusalem. “Plus, we knew Bibi would keep us safe.”



War, Religion, and the Israeli Rocket Dancers

Credit: Greg Barrett, Jerusalem, July 14, 2014

See the Huffington Post version HERE.

JERUSALEM (July 17, 2014)– The difference between wealthy and poor when you’re fighting in the Middle East? The former has the Iron Dome anti-missile defense system; the latter is near defenseless.

Sirens in Gaza send Palestinians scrambling for cover every day, yet at least 185 have died to date, e.g., cousins Mohammed Baker (aged 9), Ahed Baker (10), Zakaria Baker (10), and Mohammed Baker (11), killed late Wednesday afternoon. They were fishermen’s kids mistaken as “fleeing fighters,” an Israel Defense Forces official told Haaretz newspaper, following the two IDF airstrikes on a Gazan beach. The first explosion sent the children sprinting toward a hotel; the second targeted them.

Credit: Tyler Hicks, New York Times. The aftermath of an airstrike on a beach in Gaza City. Four young Palestinian boys, all cousins, were killed.

Credit: Tyler Hicks, New York Times, July 16, 2014. The aftermath of an airstrike on a beach in Gaza City. Four young Palestinian boys, all cousins, were killed.

Meanwhile, in Jerusalem, where the Iron Dome has received $720 million in American money since 2011, and, according to Foreign Policy magazine, will likely draw another $350 million in 2015, some Orthodox Jews dance in the streets. Sirens are celebrated. It’s a peculiar reaction to the shrill warning of rockets arriving from Gaza.

The video above shows them dancing earlier this week across from UN offices in Jerusalem along Route 60 (aka Way of the Patriarchs), a north-south thoroughfare connecting Israel and Palestine and stretching from Beersheba to Nazareth. The dance was followed by two thunderous explosions. Overhead. The Iron Dome works. Israeli peacemaker Rami Elhanan tells me that Orthodox Jews dance when faced with a threat to show the strength of their belief, i.e., God will protect them.

Of course if Gazans had the Iron Dome they might also dance.

Yesterday, Hamas urged (ordered?) Palestinians living on its borders to remain in their homes in defiance of Israel’s warning to evacuate ahead of its near-certain ground attack. The Hamas directive elicited an absurd comment from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who implied that combat here occurs on an even playing field– as if hundreds of millions of American tax dollars (not to count the annual US $3 billion or so) and an Iron Dome are equally available to both sides.

“We are using missile defense to protect our civilians,” Netanyahu told reporters on Wednesday, the same day four Gazan cousins died, “and they’re using their civilians to protect their missiles.”

Yes, Hamas, poor choice.

A Mismatch Made in Google’s Universe

Dear Google Search Engine Gurus:

You’ve saddled a poor professorial sap from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock with my bio, i.e., the photo of Dr. T. Gregory Barrett and the bio of yours truly are a decided mismatch. The good doctor Barrett is far more educated than me (my grammatical errors are proof) and he refers to his jobs resume as a curriculum vitae. Clearly, he’s not me and vice versa.

You’ve been told many times of this First World catastrophe but evidently you are too busy marrying other Wikipedia bios with photos– for better, for worse and, evidently, forever.

However, when you get a chance could you please help salvage the good name of Dr. T. Gregory Barrett? Untangle us. Set him free.

The Ideal Speech? Obama’s Extraordinary Opportunity

Jerry Casagrande is a writer focusing on issues about the environment and poverty. He lives in Northern Virginia with his wife and three children.

GUEST COLUMN by Jerry Casagrande

President Obama has an enormous decision to make regarding our country’s response to the Syrian government’s alleged use of chemical weapons that killed 1429 innocent citizens on August 21. I hope President Obama will have the courage to break from our militaristic past and forge a new future. With public opinion polls and Congressional opinions moving against any form of strike, this may be an excellent opportunity for genuine change.

Although the evidence is still being debated, the Obama Administration says that more than 1400 Syrians died painfully at the hands of what one could only call a war criminal, if the claim is true. And yet, around the world that same number of children die every four hours from malnutrition.

Even in our politically divided country, we can all agree that these deaths — from hunger and from chemical weaponry — are tragic and unnecessary. So here is what I ask President Obama to say in his speech this week:

My fellow Americans, I have looked at the options presented to me by my advisors on how to deal with the Syrian tragedy. I have determined two things:


First, that we have very little power to reduce violence in Syria without fully involving ourselves in a war there. And, of course, involving ourselves in a war will greatly increase the violence before it reduces it.


Second, as have others before me, I have reached the conclusion that violence simply begets more violence. Imagine if you will that we attack Syria in retaliation for its chemical weapons attack. We will kill men and women who are working at weapons warehouses or factories. These men and women will have children who we will orphan. If our missiles go astray, we may kill children, or the elderly. We will not kill President Bashar Assad, who I believe is most responsible for the 1429 deaths. And, he will use our attack to instigate his own people against us. There will inevitably be more violence and more deaths as a result of our actions. I have no doubt of this.


And, so I am embarking our country on a new path. In honor of the 1429 innocents who died on August 21 in Syria, we will spend the same amount of money that a retaliatory attack would cost — let’s call it $50 million — to save thousands, or tens of thousands, elsewhere. We will meet President Assad’s violence with an equal or greater measure of compassion towards the world’s least advantaged people.


Children are hungry and dying because of malnutrition in Sub-Saharan Africa, in India and Bangladesh, in Mongolia. In places that are at peace and where we can save lives without endangering American lives or creating a backlash of further violence.


What will Assad do in response? I don’t know. He might attack people with chemical weapons. In which case, we will mourn their deaths and respond with equal strength to save even more of the world’s poorest from a premature death. Each attack Assad makes, we will respond with kindness to the world’s most vulnerable citizens.

Or he may, eventually, be embarrassed and pressured into reducing his own violence. He might, like the South Africans who dismantled Apartheid after years of the world’s disdain, relent and rejoin the world community of peaceful nations.


I don’t know. But I do know this: Our action will save destitute children from death from malnutrition and it will lift up the name and reputation of these great United States as not just the most powerful country on earth, but also the most compassionate.

Tonight, I am directing my staff to prepare a list of sites where we can provide immediate assistance — to improve water access, improve agricultural yields, improve long-term access to food — to save the lives of thousands of children.


President Assad, the people you have killed have not died in vain. The United States honors their deaths by reaching out to save others from the death sentence of poverty and hunger. 

Some may say that this approach has us turning our backs on the Syrians. But, both an attack on Syria and a non-response to Assad’s alleged chemical weapons use has us turning our backs on the children dying of hunger. We live in a world of limited resources. Let us use our resources where we can to peacefully save lives rather than to violently act out in ways that may only increase the death toll.

Others with a practical bent will argue that this approach can’t happen because it requires us to turn our backs on the military-industrial-political complex, that lives off the teat of the Pentagon and that pays dividends to America’s wealthiest and most influential.

But, what if that complex can be co-opted ? What if there are profits and jobs to be had doing the good work of saving lives rather than the work of taking lives in the name of peace? What if contracts for building hospitals, providing farm equipment, building wells and cisterns, are open to the likes of Lockheed Martin, McDonnell Douglass, or a host of other defense industry corporations?

And, what if our good men and women of the service are sent to build rather than to destroy? Sent to do so in places that are already peaceful? They would not lose a paycheck. And one wonders, would they return from those places with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder? Or would they return feeling fulfilled?

America does not want another war. And, we really do not even want an attack for fear of the war it may lead to. Now is the time to do real good in the face of extraordinary violence.

I hope the President is wise enough to see his opportunity and brave enough to take advantage of it.

Religions: For the love of shalom focus on learning rather than ‘The Truth’


A friend of mine on Facebook lists as his Religious Views this:

“I don’t know and you don’t know, either.”


By some definitions (Merriam-Webster for these purposes) faith is “a firm belief in something for which there is no proof.” Protestant faith, Catholic faith, Islamic faith, Jewish faith, your faith, my faith, devout faith, waning faith, it all springs from the same mindset. Uncertainty. Religious belief requires a “strong feeling” that something is true or real. That’s Macmillan.  And no matter the strength, feelings are not the same as facts. (For example, President Dubya could feel in his gut that Iraq had storehouses of WMD.) You can preach, scream and swear on your mother’s grave that your interpretation of, say, sixty-six books of translated ancient text is literally true and God-inspired, but that’s still just your belief.

And you might be correct. I believe that you are correct about many parts. But I don’t know. And you don’t know, either.

So it is mind boggling to me why some fundamentalists continue packaging their beliefs as The Truth. Always singular, forever uppercase. The Truth silences debate and discussion; it seeks no additional enlightenment or maturity, and, when confronted with biblical contraction it just shrugs its broad shoulders. To The Truth “biblical contradiction” is a contradiction. The Truth is the final and omniscient word. Thus sayeth The Truth. If something reads like a contradiction to you than you aren’t interpreting it properly. “He that hath ears to hear, let him hear.” (Mark 4:9)

End of story.

Oy vey.

I write nonfiction, emphasis on the first syllable. As best as I can research, recall and later retell, the anecdotes in my books are entirely true; the quotes verbatim. If spoken words aren’t firmly planted in my memory, notebook, voice recorder or captured on film, they do not reside inside the hallowed quotation marks. Period. I’m a stickler for research. It’s why 69 pages of end notes complete my latest book, “The Gospel of Rutba: War, Peace, and the Good Samaritan Story in Iraq.”

This Rutba book is built on an amazing and little-known Iraqi wartime anecdote, and to some fundamentalists the story can trigger a hiccup in The Truth. They might even dismiss it by placing emphasis on nonfiction’s last two syllables. But the truth is this: During the invasion of Iraq in 2003, as a Christian-majority nation was dropping on average 941 bombs per day on an Islamic Republic, Iraqi Muslims from an embattled desert town saved three bloodied and broken Christian Americans. Rescued them from an overturned car, carried them into town, bandaged them in a barren clinic, stitched them, hugged them, and, even, refused payment. This all occurred on March 29, 2003, just three days after Special Forces accidentally bombed the town’s only hospital. I’m not speculating or translating or interpreting these events. They’re not part of my <em>belief system</em>. These are facts. Just as this is:

The Good Samaritans in the story of Rutba are Muslims. Forgiving, loving, compassionate, Allah-fearing Muslims.

In a profound way these Iraqis put into practice the lessons that Christians (fundamentalists and non-fundamentalists) are said to revere: do unto others as you would have others do unto you; treat your neighbor as yourself; turn the other cheek; love your enemy; and etc. All the important stuff that terrorists and warmongers frequently ignore, forget, or, maybe, never fully learned.

Turns out The Truth isn’t always sure what to make of this story. The Good Samaritans of Iraq sound like a contradiction. Like “Christian Muslims” or something. This muddles the proprietary narrative.

I’ve another friend on Facebook who’s an evangelical minister. A good, kind-hearted guy from everything I know. When I asked if I could bring the story of these Muslim Good Samaritans to his Church of the Nazarene congregation, he balked. In an email he responded:

“The challenge is to allow Christians to maintain their evangelism (ie: presentation of Jesus as the way, truth and the life, we are to make disciples). All while engaging in a world view that all men are children of GOD. I wonder if your message will allow for that. Love and compassion are Godly traits, not traits expressed by religions.”

I wholeheartedly agreed with his last sentence but questioned the wisdom of the first. Why would fundamentalists need to be allowed to maintain their evangelism? The Truth as packaged by fundamentalism is solid, immovable, omnipotent. Not fragile. But I assured him that my talks are not theology per se and should not be seen as a threat.

“These are true stories,” I wrote. “Listeners/Readers take away whatever resonates for them.”

I reminded the pastor of the New Testament verse (Mark 4:9) that some fundamentalists use to mute debate. It’s where Jesus explains why he delivers lessons in parables, like Morse code for the enlightened.

“And he said unto them, He that hath ears to hear, let him hear.”

I’ve not received a response to that email.

At the start of a recent speaking tourfor the paperback edition of “The Gospel of Rutba,” I was invited onto a Christian radio talk show that is broadcast on The Truth Network. Singular, uppercase. I was one of three panelists discussing our books and other works, and toward the end of the show we were each asked to tell about our Come-to-Jesus moment. If you were raised in the South and went to church every Sunday as I did, you know what that means. Your Come-to-Jesus moment is the epiphany when you saw The Truth— the flash of realization that belief in Jesus (and all the baggage that religion saddles on him) is the only way to eternal salvation.

The question presumed far too much. I felt like a kid squirming in the hard pew of my Baptist upbringing. I told The Truth Network of how I’d been dunked in the baptismal of my town’s First Baptist Church at age seven or eight. And how, as soon as I’d changed into dry clothes and accepted my bounty of hugs, handshakes and back pats, my father kept his promise. He took me to Dairy Queen. But, I continued, my true spiritual awakening had been fired by something far more nourishing than a large chocolate malt. Any epiphany from my youth had only gained meaning and maturity after I’d traveled the world as a news reporter. In some of humanity’s bleakest corners (e.g., the slums of Bangkok where Christians, Buddhists and Muslims work together to help the shantytown poor; the western desert of Iraq where Muslims rescued Americans) I had seen how anyone of any faith (or of no faith) could breathe life into Jesus’ lessons and parables. The Truth doesn’t own God. As a wise slum priest working in Bangkok once told me, God (or Allah or Whomever) is like the rain and sun. H/She falls to everyone.

Evidently there is no place in The Truth (or on The Truth Network) for that kind of nonsense. The host felt pressed to confirm that I was, in fact, a fully indoctrinated member of his Christian fraternity. He gave me the modern-day fundamentalist litmus test.

Yes, yes, he said, allowing the Rutba story a begrudging nod, but you have to admit that the Muslims have gone astray, and until they accept Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior they will spend eternity in hell.

I questioned what he meant by “gone astray.” I recounted how a Christian-majority nation invaded an Islamic nation by dropping close to 1,000 American-made bombs per day on it. I reminded him of the Muslim Good Samaritans who had exemplified the best parts of the New Testament. The rescue, the forgiveness, the stitches, the love.

The interview turned awkward and we parted ways agreeing to disagree.

The Church of the Nazarene minister who declined my offer to speak to his congregation responded last week to a story on my Facebook page. It was about President Obama’s counter-terrorism speech and the need to close the US prison on Guantanamo Bay. Since 2002 it’s been used to skirt international law while the US detains and interrogates (or tortures) “suspects” in Washington’s war on terrorism. More than 100 of the camp’s 166 detainees are currently engaged in a hunger strike to protest years of indefinite detention without formal charges, and more than 30 prisoners are being force-fed.

“History will cast a harsh judgment on this aspect of our fight against terrorism and those of us who fail to end it,” Obama said last week. “Imagine a future — 10 years from now or 20 years from now — when the United States of America is still holding people who have been charged with no crime on a piece of land that is not a part of our country. Look at the current situation, where we are force-feeding detainees who are holding a hunger strike. Is that who we are? Is that something that our Founders foresaw? Is that the America we want to leave our children?”

The evangelical minister said yes.

“Guantanamo is the most humane thing we can be doing. It is who we are and it is who we should be. (Obama’s) speech had nothing to do with us and everything to do with who The President is. He uses our grace to enrich his power, that is all.”

Later, after some Facebook backlash, he clarified his beliefs: “We don’t create terrorists. They are a product of hatred which is a product of GODLESSNESS.”

I countered this Truth the only way I know how. With more truth as best as I can research, recall and retell it.

“In my travels and reports terrorists are also known as warmongers,” I wrote. “I guess it all depends on your perspective and nation of residence. As you say, terrorism might be a product of hatred and Godlessness … but it is in my opinion most definitely a product of fear and anger.”

I explained with this story:

In Basra in 2003 I met an Iraqi preschooler and his school-teacher mom several weeks before the US-led invasion of Iraq. Four years earlier, in 1999, a US missile had gone astray in a Clinton-era no-fly-zone bombing near Basra. Mustafa, then age 4, and his brother, Haider, age 6, were outside playing when the bomb missed its target. It killed Haider and badly injured Mustafa. When I first met Mustafa he was missing two fingers and had more than thirty pieces of shrapnel embedded in him. One piece, the size of a knuckle, was near the base of his spine and caused him considerable pain when he walked.

About two months later, in April 2003, I met Mustafa and his mother again. This time in Ontario, California, a suburb of Los Angeles. They had been brought to the U.S. with the help of US Christian peacemaker Kathy Kelly, actor Sean Penn and several others. In California, Mustafa would receive free surgery and medical treatment. When I visited him and his mother in Ontario, they were living large compared to where they’d been living in Basra. His borrowed townhouse outside of L.A. was gorgeous, and the streets around it were trimmed and cleaned. He had all the comforts of a prosperous Western life. He smiled a lot, much more than when I’d met him in Basra.

On Mustafa’s eighth birthday his new neighbors, kind middle-class Americans, pooled their money and bought him a bike. A local newspaper reporter later interviewed him and asked a question that prompted an awkward but telling response.

“What would you like to be when you grow up?”

Mustafa answered from his heart while his mother translated.

“He said he wants to be a pilot,” Mom told the reporter.

Makes for a good script. The Iraqi boy who lost his brother and two fingers to an American bomb comes to California for healing, and now he wants to be a pilot.  Hollywood endings. Except his answer hadn’t ended there.

When I visited Ontario that same spring the mother told me that she had not translated Mustafa’s entire response. Maybe because she knew me or because Kathy, myself and others had shared a meal with her and her Iraqi soldier husband on the floor of their concrete home, she felt comfortable telling me the fuller truth. Mustafa, a little boy living in the cross-hairs and harsh consequences of the US military industry, had said this about his career path:

“I want to be a pilot when I grow up so I can fly a plane and drop bombs on Americans.”

Why wouldn’t he? Angry and frightened, much like the US after 9/11, he was declaring war on terrorism.

My evangelical minister friend responded with his hands over his ears.

“Let him who has ears hear. Godlessness is Godlessness. Those who don’t understand that do not have the ears to hear or the eyes to see.”

Week 1 of Resolving to ‘Post-it’ for 365 Days

From my Huffington Post column/blog

As a renovator the 3-x-3 Post-it note can restore a home better than paint and new siding. It can repair more things than duct tape. As a daily supplement — given (not taken) daily like a multivitamin — it fosters growth in the relationships of spouses, lovers, parents and their children; it can nourish souls; and, in my case, correct poor vision.

Story goes like this: One day a few years ago I told my wife, “I love you.” Nothing unusual there. During 15 years of marriage (20 now) I’d said those three words to her 5,475 times (365 x 15 minus a dozen or so arguments each year offset by extra sentiments added like sweetener each anniversary, birthday and Valentine’s).

This time, however, my wife’s response was unusual. Maybe we’d been arguing and/or drifting into our separate work and projects. I honestly don’t recall.

“Why?” she responded, hugging me.

“Why what?”

“Why do you love me? Why me?”

Her question wasn’t rhetorical. There were many reasons I loved her, but I couldn’t recall the last time I’d bothered to articulate many or any of them. Put on the spot, I waved her off, used a question to fend off the question.

“Why? What do you mean, ‘Why?’ Why do you love me? That’s the harder question.”

I’m an early riser, always first in the house. The next morning, before pouring my second mug of coffee, I repeated her question by writing it on a yellow Post-it note. I then answered it in a sentence or two. In order to tell you exactly what I wrote (assuming I would) I’d have to dig through an unsorted, sticky pile of 365 Post-its. But my response isn’t the point.

The next morning I repeated and answered her question again. I scribbled “Day 2 of 365” on top of the Post-it, pretty much committing myself to a year of responses. No big deal. Restricting my thoughts/observations/praise to a 3-by-3 inch yellow square meant I had to be succinct. Each note consumed less than a minute.

However, the legwork that went into each note required a shift in my perspective.

By the time I wrote Day 7 of 365 my gratitude had begun sounding like platitudes. “I love you because you’re a good mother to our two sons” is nice, but trite. To keep the notes fresh I had to glean new material each day. I had to keep my eyes peeled for good anecdotes and things to praise. That is, instead of reacting to petty things that irritate every long-term relationship, I began noticing the simple things that sustain them. For example, the way she spent twenty minutes each day watering our baby pear tree. I’d never even known. Or the way she was the first to volunteer to keep stats for my Little League team when the regular scorekeeper was absent.

So by Day 33 of 365 I clearly understood why she was bedridden. She had caught the flu from our oldest son (then age 10) because she was a good mother, i.e., loving, empathic, selfless. Her immune system hadn’t stood a chance in the face of her hands-on care. The day her fever peaked at 102 my Post-it read, “… [Y]ou loved our eldest and loved on him so much you made yourself sick. Even our 8-year-old (now 13) saw it coming. ‘What is Mom thinking?’ he asked me. ‘She isn’t,’ I said. ‘Sometimes love doesn’t think. It just does.'”

Winter turned to spring and spring to summer before I realized that my wife and I weren’t arguing as often. The habit of recording her qualities had made my gripes seem trivial. In return, my daily appreciations had encouraged her to give me more slack whenever I screwed up. It was a win-win.

A year later I was telling this story to my first book editor (Sheryl Fullerton of Wiley) in a crowded restaurant in Half Moon Bay, California. Before I could finish it I felt someone standing over my shoulder, like a waiter or waitress. I looked up and it was a young man, a customer from a nearby table. When he spoke his voice trembled.

“I’ve been listening to you and I just want to say, ‘Thank you.'”

Tears pooled in his eyes. He explained that he was semi-estranged from his parents, and, while listening to me describe my Post-it therapy, he’d realized how much he had failed to appreciate his mother and father. Like most parents, his were selfless but imperfect. He now wished that he had focused on the former rather than the latter.

Me too, again, and before it’s too late. But my regret tracks in the opposite direction of his.

A loved one told me recently that I can be too critical of my sons. They are now teenagers, with all of the computers and video games and iPods that come with that age. Screens, screens, screens, it seems I am always screaming about screens. That’s not likely to change.

However, I need to focus on the larger picture. I know this. I just forget. So on New Years Day I filled out a Post-it appreciation for each son. On one, I mentioned how much I love that he is patient and tender with our dog, Kona. On the other, I mentioned how much I enjoyed his thought-provoking insights on politics and war.

Both of my kids have huge hearts and engaging minds. But those descriptions are vague, trite. If I hope to get a year’s worth of material, I need to be specific. I need anecdotes and things to praise. I need an open mind and eyes that stay open. I need to pay better attention.

I’ve always liked Apostle Paul’s advice in First Thessalonians to “pray without ceasing.” I’ve never understood that to mean that we should go around with our heads bowed and eyes closed. Just the opposite. We should always be aware and alert to the miracles and blessings in our life. To my sons.

So, wish me luck. It’s Week 1 of 52 in 2013.

Please check out my upcoming book/film tour and Indiegogo campaign HERE.