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"The Dark Years" by Nelson Mandela
Mandela describes how authorities attempted to "exploit every weakness, demolish every initiative, negate all signs of individuality-all with the idea of stamping out that spark that makes each of us human and each of us who we are." How can individuals promote the opposite in each other-that is, how can individuals or authorities encourage "that spark that makes people human and each of us who we are"?
Why would Mandela and his ANC colleagues go to such lengths to get news of the outside, like passing it from cell to cell on scraps of toilet paper? How does a sense of political isolation foster despair, while being connected with an engaged community encourages hope? How do you break down your political isolation?
Most of us will not face the hardships of imprisonment like Nelson Mandela, but in what other ways can we be imprisoned? What qualities does Mandela suggest help human beings surmount even the greatest of challenges?
Loeb writes, "Those who make us believe anything's possible, however, and fire our imagination over the long haul, are often the ones who've have survived the bleakest of circumstances. It's the men and women who have every reason to despair, but don't, who may have the most to teach us, not only about how to hold true to our beliefs, but about how such a life can bring about seemingly impossible social change." Do you agree or disagree with this why? What lessons can we draw from people facing the most difficult situations for our own more modest challenges?
How can courage be multiplied? Can you think of a time in your life or a situation you've witnessed when courage multiplied? Explain.
"It was ANC policy to try to educate all people, even our enemies." What was the point of this policy? Have you ever reached out to someone with whom you radically disagree on an issue about which you felt passionately? What was it like?
"An Orientation of the Heart" by Vaclav Havel
In the beginning of his essay, Havel describes how hope is "a state of mind, not a state of the world." And he distinguishes hope from optimism. How would you distinguish the belief that things will turn out well from the deeper sense that guides us even when we are unsure of the results of our actions. Have you ever faced a personal situation where you acted even though the outcomes were uncertain?
What states of mind and approaches to the world do you think nurture hope? Do you know someone who exemplifies a hopeful approach to the world, and not just an optimistic one? Describe this person.
Have you ever heard people label activists "exhibitionistic" or say they were just trying "to draw attention to themselves." What was your response when you realized this same charge was being levied at a later successful democracy movement that challenged a Communist dictatorship? Did this make you question the way our own society so quickly dismisses our own political dissenters?
Would you agree with Milan Kundera that the petition circulated by Havel and others was futile? Why or why not? Compare Havel's description of people being brought together to challenge the regime in an apparently futile context with Paul’s friend Lisa standing in the rain and realizing she'd later helped inspire famed baby doctor, Ben Spock. How do these examples suggest that the impact of our actions may only be clear in hindsight?
How did the petition help keep the prisoners going? Have you ever witnessed a situation where the supportive actions of others help courageous individuals keep acting? Do you agree with Havel's judgment that small acts of resistance can still matter--even if they don't have the desired immediate outcome?
Since the dictatorship was still in power when Havel wrote his essay (and according to global consensus likely to remain so), what allowed him to see the cracks in the walls of their seemingly unchallengeable rule? Is it possible for us to look similarly beyond the horizon to see what might be possible in changing unjust situations in our own political context? What does it mean to "make a way out of no way"?
Havel describes resistance against a dictatorship that seeks to control every aspect of daily life in a way that prevents questioning the prevailing authorities. Does our dominant culture ever function in a similar way? If so, how? If much our culture avoids talking about the real and urgent questions of our time, what would a culture look like that challenges this? What signs of it do you see in today's America?
“Reluctant Activists” by Mary Pipher
"Staying the Course" by Mary-Wynne Ashford
Is the metaphor of rolling a rock up the hill a useful one? How do we know when we're making progress?
Have you ever done something just because it seemed it was right to do, even if you weren't sure you'd get the outcome you desired?
Has anyone ever tried to make you feel isolated for a stand you're taking, perhaps using the phrase "no one else has a problem"?
Ashford describes almost paralyzing despair over the crises of our planet. Are there global or national issues that evoke in you a similar type of despair or fear? What does Ashford do in the face of her despair? What lessons from her essay can help you with your own feelings of despair?
Ashford asserts, "The planetary crises raise existential and spiritual questions we are usually able to avoid in our affluent society." How does being an affluent society allow us to avoid difficult questions? Do poorer nations have the same opportunities for denial on areas like deforestation or water pollution? Explain.
What does it mean to "stay the course"? Use examples from the essay to help explain. Do you have personal examples of "staying the course" related to being true to your own conviction?
Explain what is meant by the Quaker phrase, "Speaking truth to power." How does it balance passion, courage, and commitment, along with a truth that's based on knowledge and accurate information?
Identify a pressing societal issue today that concerns you. Research the issue in order to give yourself background that will help you "speak the truth to power."
Ashford states that "breaking the silence is the most significant thing we can do as individuals." Make a plan to tell someone else about the issue you've researched. Explain your interest in the issue and what you learned. Develop a course of action to help "push the rock up the hill," if only a little way.
"The Elm Dance" by Joanna Macy
Can you imagine a situation where you could no longer walk in a forest that had long sustained you and your community? What does it do to us when we kill the natural world?
Why did the Novozybkov residents bury their pain for so long? Have you been in a situation where something terrible has happened or is happening and people don't talk about it? Can you think of some examples of difficult questions that our society buries?
What happened when the residents began to talk about their pain? Why was it freeing? What is the gain and the hope in talking about the most difficult questions for a family, a community, a society? Use the example of the Novozybkov mayor and the people at Macy's workshops.
Why can it help us to let our hearts break open? What's the link between this essay and Art Waskow's talk of the value of vulnerability in "The Sukkoth of Shalom."
Did you know about the Chernobyl disaster? Research additional information about it. Are there parallels with the 2013 meltdown of the reactor in Fukushima, Japan? Why should others care about Chernobyl, especially since the event occurred nearly twenty years ago half way around the world?
One strategy for healing the past for the citizens of Novozybkov was to strength their "cultural immune system." Through tradition and memories participants remembered who they were and remembered their sources of strength. The Elm Dance song built on the traditions of different cultures. Can you think of how culture here can be used to give people courage?
Describe a family or community tradition that is important to you. How does this tradition serve as a source of strength for you? Describe some of your sources of strength? Is it important to preserve cultural traditions? Why or why not?
What did Macy mean when she explained the history of the Elm Dance and said: "They [the German people] gave their children everything-except one thing. They did not give them their broken hearts. And their children have never forgiven them." Do you agree/disagree that a society should give its children everything, including their broken hearts? Apply Macy's point to a situation today such as Hurricane Sandy or another devastating occurrence.
"Is There Hope on Climate Change" by David Roberts
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Tutu believes that "it was courageous leaders who gave the sides hope that negotiations could lead to a good outcome," and applauds De Klerk and Mandela for their leadership. What qualities did both embody in the process of moving toward democracy? Are there lessons for our own leaders, faced with difficult situations?
Where do you think Tutu gets his hope? Think back to this book's introduction, and to Jim Wallis's story of Tutu inviting the South African police officers to join the winning side.
What does Tutu mean by "God has a sense of humor." How does this compare with Howard Zinn's "The Optimism of Uncertainty?"
Why is the Tutu essay a fitting conclusion for this anthology?
Do you agree that "Only justice can stop a curse?" What's the relationship between this concept and Tutu's notion of forgiveness?
It seems that everywhere we turn, we find people in despair, feeling there's nothing they can do about the most critical issues of our time. Yet others face the same realities (or challenges far greater and more personally risky) and still find ways to act. Think over the essays you have read. Review Ch. 43, "You Have to Pick Your Team," and then write an essay about which of these authors (at least one) you would "pick for your team" and why (their attitude, the issue they care about, their personal stories, etc).
Desmond Tututalks about being called to act by the 3 billion people in the world “who are not responsible for global warming” but “will pay the
highest price if wealthy countries refuse to do their fair share.” Do you feel a connection to those people or sense of resonsibility? If you do what would it mean for your choices to act on it? Thinking back to the beginning of the book, does Tutu offer a way to do that without lapsing into bleak despair? Explain.
Dostoyevsky once wrote, "Each one of us is responsible to all others for everything." Do you agree or disagree with this perspective? Explain. If you agree, how is this possible? List specific ways you can carry out your responsibilities "to all others for everything."
"Only Justice Can Stop a Curse" by Alice Walker
Have you ever experienced the mind-state Alice Walker describes, where you decide that humans have messed up the world so profoundly, that maybe we're just doomed to extinction? How did you get past it?
What is your reaction to the curse-prayer at the beginning of the Walker essay? Have you felt this kind of anger and bitterness toward an enemy? Were you able to channel your anger in positive ways? If so, how?
Walker states that although she has been an activist all her adult life, she sometimes has felt embarrassed to call herself one. What defines an "activist" in your opinion? Compare definitions with others. Would you be embarrassed to call yourself an activist? Why or why not?
Can you conceive of Walker's interracial marriage being illegal, and the laws prohibiting it being justified by mainstream institutions, like most of the southern churches? Does this have any relevance to contemporary debates, for instance on gay marriage? Compare this history with the history described in Dan Savage's essay.
What is the tragedy of the world that Walker refers to?
Walker concludes her essay by recalling the story of "blond Paul from Minnesota" from her voter-registration work in the deep South. What is the point of this story-that is, what did she learn from that experience that is a part of who she is today? Have there been people you've dismissed who've surprised you with their courage or vision?
Walker renews her soul by remembering " fresh peaches and the courage of `people at their best, reaching toward their fullness'" in order to expand her spirit and make her feel larger than her rage. Have you ever been brought out of feelings of bitterness by savoring the fruits of the world? How does this parallel the Desmond Tutu story that Loeb tells in the book's introduction?
How do our small stones of activism add up to build an edifice of hope?
Explain the quote: "All we own, at least for the short time we have it, is our life. With it we write what we come to know of the world." How would you write a more just world with your life?
"The Clan of One-Breasted Women" by Terry Tempest Williams
Did you know about the nuclear testing of the 50's? Did it surprise you that our government knowingly exposed our population to these risks?
Compare the Tempest Williams essay to Joanna Macy's "The Elm Tree Dance" in Section VIII. How is your understanding of the Macy essay affected after reading the Tempest Williams piece?
Review the essay to identify some element about which you would like to know more information, and research it; for example, Operation Plumbbob, McCarthyism, Eisenhower's Cold War policies, nuclear testing today, the Atomic Energy Commission, etc. Share your findings with others in the class. Did you find out anything that surprised you? Explain.
Has anyone told you "just let it go" about an injustice you later regretted not acting upon?
Tempest Williams asserts, "Tolerating blind obedience in the name of patriotism or religion ultimately takes our lives." Explain what she means. Do you agree/disagree? Do you see examples of this today? Explain.
What did the women mean when they talked of reclaiming the desert for their children?
When she is handcuffed, the officer finds a pen and pad of paper, which Tempest Williams says are weapons. Explain how a pen and a pad of paper can serve as political weapons.
How does the dream portion of the essay contribute to its overall meaning?
The Tempest Williams essay includes a number of references to the deaths of women the author has loved. The essay also expresses anger toward the nuclear testing that almost certainly destroyed their lives. So where is the theme of hope? Why do you think so many activists passed this essay around when it first came out? Why does Loeb consider Tempest Williams such a powerful hopeful voice?
"Next Year in Mas'Ha" by Starhawk
When Starhawk describes the settlement residents who could be her aunts and uncles, explain the tug of loyalty she feels. Have you ever tried to question the actions of a group in which you were raised?
What do you know about the history of the Israeli West Bank settlements? About the life and death of Rachel Corrie? About the nonviolent resistance efforts she was part of? Have you ever seen a map of the Israeli settlements? Americans for Peace Now, the US counterpart of the major Israeli peace group, has of the current map on their website. If you visit it, does it surprise you to see the extent of the settlements compared to the core West Bank population centers?
Starhawk describes the stark contrast of two realities, the California-like homes of Elcanah and the zone of destruction beyond the wall. Does this kind of "two realities" exist in America as well? Explain. What are some of the root causes of two realities within the United States?
What is the "slight sweet hint of hope" that Starhawk tastes in a situation that might seem unimaginably grim? How does it connect with the book's theme of the power of generosity?
What would it mean, in our own situation, to open our hearts to the children of the enemy and ask for help?
Why does Starhawk close with "Next year in Mas'Ha"?
"The Gruntwork of Peace" by Amos Oz
Where would Oz and Starhawk likely find agreement despite some of their obvious differences? What is the over-arching theme for the two essays?
Were you surprised by the span of people that participated in the discussions on the draft peace plan: Israeli generals and Mossad officials, and long-jailed Palestinian leaders, including leaders of guerrilla groups? How they were able to overcome the history of bloodshed on both sides, in which many had participated? What do you think they had to let go of to come to the place where they could even talk? How did each side give up part of its identity?
What do Starhawk's and Oz's essays suggest about the possibilities for peacemaking in very conflicted political situations? Do you think it necessary to get to know the other side face-to-face as people? How can that approach be applied to conflicts in our country, or our everyday lives?
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Do you agree with West that the percentage of Americans who believe Barack Obama is secretly a Muslim is an indicator of continuing racial divides in our country? What about the disparate racial responses to the acquittal of George Zimmerman for shooting the unarmed Trayvon Martin?
In his essay West refers to past struggles for Black Americans, yet still offers a sense of courage and hope: "Our courage rests on a deep democratic vision of a better world that lures us and a blood-drenched hope that sustains us." What does he mean that a "blood-drenched hope" sustains them?
In your own words, describe West's perspective on the difference between optimism and hope.
"Road to Redemption" by Billy Wayne Sinclair
Sinclair describes his decision to do the right thing in order to maintain his self-respect based on the moral framework he had developed. Describe a time when you were faced with a similar decision to "do the right thing." What did you decide? What factors helped you decide one way or another? If you had the opportunity to make the same decision again, would it be the same? Explain.
Could you imagine taking a stand like Sinclair's, knowing that it might leave you spending the rest of your life in jail? What kind of moral courage would it take? Is it surprising that this courage developed in someone who once was a destructive criminal?
What do you think gave Sinclair his core strength? Did it come on suddenly, or did it build as he took different risks of courage?
What role did personal loyalties play in his conversion?
Based on Sinclair's story, what do you think makes the difference between situations that give criminals a chance to be redeemed, and ones that make more likely that they'll continue with a life of crime?
"Resisting Terror" by Peter Ackerman and Jack DuVall
Did you know the story of the Rosenstrasse Jews? Or the Mothers of the Disappeared? Why don't we learn about these immensely hopeful stories?
What do these stories say about how some people manage to act even among the most extreme and intimidating circumstances-such as the threat of being shot by the Nazis? Do they suggest lessons for us to take the risk of courageous actions in circumstances where the consequences are often no more than having to deal with someone disagreeing with us? Why don't we act when we have far more freedoms and latitude?
Azucenda de Villaflor de De Vincente was an "ordinary homemaker, never looking outward until 1976.." What is meant by the phrase, "never looking outward"? Do you mostly look outward or inward?
De Vincente became an activist after her son and daughter-in-law disappeared. What allows people to act if they haven't been directly touched by oppression or tragedy? Is it a sense of feeling someone's story, whether or not you know them personally? Interview someone working in a group like Amnesty International who acts even though they may never directly know the people they work to save.
How important is it for ordinary citizens to look outward and become activists before they're challenged to do by tragic events?
To what extent do you feel you look outward and/or consider yourself an activist? What would help you look outward on a more consistent basis and/or become more of an activist?
The essay describes stories of oppression in both Berlin and Buenos Aires, where the power of women to initiate change was underestimated. What skills, traits, or attributes did the women bring to those situations of oppression that helped initiate change? Do you think the power of women to initiate change is underestimated today? Explain.
Research other examples of nonviolent resistance, like the others in Ackerman and DuVall's book, or in the sections in this book on the Arab Spring. How do these stories support the thesis of the essay?
Are there lessons from "Resisting Terror" about how to deal with brutal dictatorial regimes like Saddam Hussein's Iraq? You could look up DuVall's Iraq-related essays on the internet for his perspective on what we should have done instead of the path we took. Explain whether you agree or disagree.
Whatever one thinks about the possibilities of nonviolent resistance, what do these essays say about the possibilities of human courage and hope?
Section Seven Introduction:
Do you agree that hope, as Tony Kushner put it, is a moral obligation? What's the difference between naive hope and hope that's grounded in history?
Do secular and religious activists differ in their views of social commitment and the reasons for persistence? If so how? You could interview activists in both category, perhaps even those working on the same side of a particular issue like climate change. Or if you're active in an issue, talk with compatriots who differ in their theological worldview.
"Letter from Birmingham Jail" by Martin Luther King
What is the central thesis of the excerpt from "Letter from Birmingham Jail"? Had you read any of King's writings before, aside from his "I Have a Dream" speech?
Explain what King meant when he said: "Shallow understanding from people of goodwill is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will." Think of an example in your own life that supports King's point.
Explain what King means by the "myth of time" when he says he hoped that "the white moderate would reject the myth of time." Explain situation(s) in which this point is still applicable today. Take a current situation where people don't act because they believe a particular issue will simply be addressed in due time (or maybe is impossible to adequately address). Discuss possible courses of action on that partiular issue that can and should be taken today.
More than forty years ago, Martin Luther King wrote that "we will have to repent in this generation not merely for the vitriolic words and actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence of the good people." Is this statement true for today's generation as well? Explain. Identify situations and issues of today that people should be discussing more, but where too many are remaining silent. List at least three examples.
The original audience for King's letter was white Christian ministers. What gives the letter it's broader and enduring appeal? Did the letter speak to you, and if so how?
"The Real Rosa Parks" by Paul Rogat Loeb
Explain in your own words why the retelling of the Rosa Parks story as most know it may actually make it harder for ordinary citizens to get involved in issues of social change? Did you know the real story before reading this book or Loeb's other work? How does knowing the real story shift your view of social change?
What is the empowering moral of the Rosa Parks story? What does that moral suggest to you about your own involvement and/or responsibility for social change?
Do you agree or disagree that Parks's first action in going to a NAACP meeting was just as pivotal as her stand on the bus? Would one have happened without the other?
Had you heard of Highlander Center/Highlander Folk School? If not, what does it say about our education that such an important institution is omitted from our history? Research what they're doing now, to continue their earlier legacy.
Who are some of the models of social commitment you have known in your life? If you can't think of anyone right now, look back at the essays in this anthology; and identify 2-3 people you would like to remember as models of social commitment.
Interview someone who is a model of social commitment (or read more about someone you've identified from this anthology) in order to find out additional information about the daily struggles that they faced and how they kept on going.
Research one of the following historical efforts at change: the American union movement; the movement that brought us Social Security; the women's suffrage movement; the origin of the 40 hour week; the environmental movement. Through your research, identify a person often associated with the movement who often has been overlooked, but serves as a model of social commitment.
"Prisoners of Hope" by Cornel West
In the opening paragraph, West asserts that the divide between the haves and have-nots of this nation is widening. Find at least three facts or statistics through additional research that support West's assertions.
Explain what is meant by the Biblical quote: "For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world but lose his own soul?" List any books, poems, songs, or movies that continue to explore this question today.
Summarize what Cornel West is saying about rage and its need to have some kind of constructive channel. Do you agree/disagree? Explain.
What does it mean to ask that our leaders "Make it real"? In this time of deep political division, how can we distinguish empty rhetoric from real vision?
West asserts that "a rich life consists fundamentally of serving others, trying to leave the world a little better than you found it." What are some ways you've already contributed toward making the world a better place by your words or actions? What are two of your long term goals for doing this? (Remember "the real Rosa Parks" story-actions for social change often have small beginnings.)
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