2021
May
20
Thursday

Monitor Daily Podcast

May 20, 2021
Loading the player...

TODAY’S INTRO

The Respect Project: A chat with correspondents

Earlier this week, two Monitor correspondents and I chatted about respect – along with more than 900 other people. The occasion? A Monitor “Community Hub” webinar about our Respect Project, a series that has run over the past two weeks.

The Respect Project plumbs a value that can seem in short supply amid deep divides. We actually wondered if the initiative would stand up as our reporters looked into issues from politics to racial equity. It did; in fact, being alert to the idea of respect in its many expressions gave greater depth to their stories. For Sara Miller Llana, it meant reporting the work of a group of Black mothers advocating for equity in the Ontario public schools not just as a difficult battle, but also as a lesson in what it truly means to establish respect. For Dina Kraft, who has long covered Israeli and Palestinian politics and society, and “the intersections between people whose lives aren’t supposed to intersect,” it was about giving voice amid the current conflict to the many Jews and Arabs who have looked at the mob violence and hatred and said, “That’s not us.”

And then there was our audience, who immediately weighed in on how they could contribute to fortifying respect – be it “not fanning the flames,” “really hearing each other’s stories,” or “showing more respect in political conversations.” More than 300 joined a chat forum, offering book recommendations and ideas about actions to take.

If you’d like to watch a recording of the event, you can find it here. And let us know what you think!

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

What Supreme Court’s jettisoning of precedent may mean for future

What happens when “settled law” isn’t really settled? Supreme Court justices are showing a greater willingness to toss precedent – even when they haven’t been asked to do so.

Amelia

Two ways to read the story

  • Quick Read
  • Deep Read ( 6 Min. )

The Supreme Court has, for the best part of a century, regularly overturned precedents – led by justices of all ideological stripes. But the theory underlying those decisions – that the court must be asked first, and that a “special justification” is needed – has been applied with relative consistency.

As the justices prepare in the coming months to review precedents on contentious issues like abortion rights, gun rights, and the nexus of LGBTQ rights and religious liberty, that consistency with which precedent is treated seems to be shifting.

“We are in the midst of a change in how Supreme Court justices treat established precedent,” says Kimberly West-Faulcon, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles.

The ramifications could be significant.

“It is important to have confidence that the meaning of the US Constitution does not change because the personnel of the Supreme Court changes,” says Professor West-Faulcon.

“More importantly, it makes individual justices who are currently sitting on the Supreme Court far more powerful than in the past,” she adds. “If you are not obligated to make exceptions for the vast majority of already decided cases, no prior legal rule is safe.”

Collapse

What Supreme Court’s jettisoning of precedent may mean for future

Erin Schaff/Reuters
(Top row, left to right) Associate Justice Brett Kavanaugh, Associate Justice Elena Kagan, Associate Justice Neil Gorsuch, and Associate Justice Amy Coney Barrett and (bottom row, left to right) Associate Justice Samuel Alito, Associate Justice Clarence Thomas, Chief Justice John Roberts, Associate Justice Stephen Breyer, and Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor shown at the Supreme Court in Washington on April 23, 2021.

Earlier this week the conservative supermajority on the U.S. Supreme Court voted to scrap a legal rule that, while decades old, had never really been used.

On the surface it may not seem like a radical move – the judicial equivalent of canceling a gym membership you never use. The so-called watershed exception – that criminal rules don’t apply retroactively unless they represent a major procedural change – had never been applied in its 32-year history, Justice Brett Kavanaugh wrote in the court’s majority opinion.

But on closer examination, and in the context of other actions the court took this week, scrapping the watershed exception suggests that the court – in particular its conservative wing – has a more gung-ho attitude toward overturning precedent than in the past.

Respect for precedent is a founding principle of the U.S. legal system, and overturning it is one of the Supreme Court’s defining powers. In a 1932 dissent, Justice Louis Brandeis explained why the high court should, generally, respect past decisions: “In most matters,” he wrote, “it is more important that the applicable rule of law be settled than that it be settled right.”

In other words, following earlier rulings (i.e., precedent) is important even if you disagree with those earlier rulings. Past rulings should only be overturned if there’s “special justification.”

The legal doctrine the justices follow when reviewing precedent is known as stare decisis – taken from a Latin maxim “to stand by things decided and not disturb settled points.” The doctrine has no formal boundaries, so which “matters” fall outside the “most matters” described by Brandeis?

In recent decades, as conservative jurists – and judicial philosophies like originalism – have come to dominate the high court, how those justices interpret stare decisis has become the defining debate.

Justice Antonin Scalia helped entrench the originalist philosophy, which holds that the Constitution should be interpreted as the framers intended. He was also reluctant to overturn precedent, describing stare decisis as a “pragmatic exception” to originalism. Originalists on the court today, such as Justices Clarence Thomas and Amy Coney Barrett, have expressed much less reluctance, however.

“We are in the midst of a change in how Supreme Court justices treat established precedent,” says Kimberly West-Faulcon, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, in an email.

Those views were on display this week, and with the court set to review a key abortion precedent next term, they will likely guide some of the court’s future rulings.

“A lot of wiggle room”

The stare decisis doctrine “is far from a model of clarity,” says Ilya Somin, a professor at George Mason University’s Antonin Scalia Law School.

“It leaves a lot of wiggle room” for any justice, he continues, “to overturn any precedent he or she thinks is badly wrong, and also so long as getting rid of it will not cause some kind of enormous harm in society.”

The court’s liberal justices have indulged this trend to a degree – casting important votes in recent years to overturn precedents regarding same-sex marriage and state laws criminalizing sodomy – but since they have been an ideological minority on the court for decades, they have not been as active as their conservative colleagues.

And how the court’s conservative justices view precedent does seem to be shifting. The fact that they abandoned the watershed exception this week despite the question never being asked or argued is one indicator. And their individual records provide further indications.

Justice Scalia famously said that Justice Thomas “does not believe in stare decisis, period.” And as of 2019, Justice Thomas had written more than 250 opinions seriously questioning precedent, according to Stephen Wasby, a professor of political science at the University at Albany.

But where Justice Thomas used to write these opinions alone, he is now finding support from several colleagues.

Justice Kavanaugh – who, having voted with the majority more than any other justice this term, is effectively the court’s ideological center – has shown a recent, expansive view toward overruling precedent. In addition to his opinion this week scrapping the watershed exception, earlier this term he wrote an opinion effectively overturning a 2016 ruling that barred life without parole sentences for nearly all juvenile offenders.

And as court watchers, and some of his colleagues, have noted, he has been overturning precedent with less clarity and consistency than Justice Thomas.

Meanwhile, the newest member of the court, Justice Barrett, wrote extensively on stare decisis while teaching law at the University of Notre Dame. The doctrine is a “soft rule,” she wrote in one article; “modern originalism” raised the possibility that “following precedent might sometimes be unlawful,” she wrote in another. In a third, she wrote that “rigid application” of stare decisis “raises due-process concerns and, on occasion, slides into unconstitutionality.”

When does precedent get overturned?

Beyond that, jettisoning the watershed exception illustrates “the court’s willingness to overrule [a precedent] rather than just leave it,” says Douglas Berman, a professor at the Ohio State University Moritz College of Law.

“The willingness of this court to embrace a shift in doctrine, even when they didn’t have to, that’s the key,” he adds.

Indeed, a core principle of overturning precedent is that the justices should first be asked to consider overturning a precedent. That is not something they were asked to address in their ruling this week in Edwards v. Vannoy.

The case instead asked the court if a decision it made last year – barring convictions from non-unanimous juries – applied retroactively. That practice, in Oregon and Louisiana, had roots in the Jim Crow era. For decades, when considering such a question the Supreme Court had followed a precedent holding that no new criminal rules would apply retroactively unless they constitute “watershed” new procedures.

In the 32 years since that exception was written, Justice Kavanaugh said in the majority opinion, “the Court has never found that any new procedural rule actually satisfies the purported exception.”

“No one can reasonably rely on an exception that is non-existent in practice,” he added. “The watershed exception must ‘be regarded as retaining no vitality.’”

Practically, the ruling this week means that hundreds of people convicted by non-unanimous juries in Louisiana and Oregon must serve the remainder of their sentences – even though the method of their conviction has been deemed unconstitutional.

The ruling broke along ideological divides, with Justice Kavanaugh joined by the court’s five other conservatives. Meanwhile Justice Elena Kagan, joined by the court’s two other liberals, criticized the abandonment of the exception in a dissent that struck at the heart of the court’s long-running debate about precedent.

The majority “discards precedent without a party requesting that action,” she wrote. “And it does so with barely a reason given, much less the ‘special justification’ our law demands.”

Justice Kagan wrote with some added authority because, as she pointed out in a footnote, she had dissented from the court’s ruling last year on non-unanimous jury verdicts “precisely because of its abandonment of stare decisis.”

But with that Ramos v. Louisiana ruling now law, she added, “I take the decision on its own terms, and give it all the consequence it deserves.”

The Supreme Court has, for the best part of a century, regularly overturned precedents – led by justices of all ideological stripes. But the theory underlying those decisions – that the court must be asked first, and that a special justification is needed – while admittedly open to some interpretation, has been applied with relative consistency.

The Edwards ruling is one indication of how that consistency is disappearing. And the court is now preparing, in the coming months and years, to review weightier precedents on issues like abortion rights, gun rights, and the nexus of LGBTQ rights and religious liberty. 

The ramifications could be significant.

“It is important to have confidence that the meaning of the US Constitution does not change because the personnel of the Supreme Court changes,” says Professor West-Faulcon.

“More importantly, it makes individual justices who are currently sitting on the Supreme Court far more powerful than in the past,” she adds. “If you are not obligated to make exceptions for the vast majority of already decided cases, no prior legal rule is safe.”

The Explainer

California asks, who is responsible for wildfire safety?

As residential sprawl feeds ever-more destructive infernos, California is taking aim at local control over land-use planning, appealing to a sense of shared responsibility.

Amelia
Gregory Bull/AP/File
A helicopter drops water near a structure as crews fight the Skyline fire in San Diego County near Jamul, California, on June 11, 2020.

Two ways to read the story

  • Quick Read
  • Deep Read ( 5 Min. )

The number and intensity of wildfires has grown in recent years, especially in California. Last year alone, nearly 10,000 fires consumed 4.2 million acres of land in the state, killing 33 people and causing about $10 billion in damage. 

It’s particularly problematic in areas where development meets natural lands. Eleven million Californians live within this wildland-urban interface – more than a fourth of the population. Add to this a drought and desperate need for more housing, and the perils are clear. 

Attempting to address the risks, state lawmakers are butting up against property owners, developers, and local control over who gets to build and where. The attorney general’s office has joined a pair of lawsuits that would block two housing developments, citing developers’ insufficient consideration of potential wildfire dangers. Proposals in the Legislature take aim at local planners and at homeowners to block or redefine new construction and to urge existing communities to become more fire-adaptive. 

The collective measures call on Californians to share responsibility for fire safety statewide.   

“Once the fire starts, it’s too late,” Democratic Assembly Member Jim Wood of Santa Rosa tells The Sacramento Bee. “That preparation work needs to start happening right now.”

Collapse

California asks, who is responsible for wildfire safety?

The wildfires that ravaged California last year left behind a scorched landscape and a rubble pile of unsettling numbers.

Some 9,900 fires burned more than 4.2 million acres and destroyed almost 10,500 homes and other buildings, killing 33 people and causing an estimated $10 billion in damage. The devastation included five of the six largest infernos in state history – and the first to exceed 1 million acres – and forced tens of thousands of residents to flee their homes as flames threatened towns and cities alike.

As much as ailing natural lands, forest mismanagement, and climate change, residential sprawl has contributed to an increase in catastrophic blazes across the West. Studies show that half to three-fourths of the homes razed by wildfires in California fall within the wildland-urban interface, broadly defined as areas where development meets natural lands and where 11 million people live statewide.

The housing density in fire-prone settings feeds infernos as wind-blown embers flit from rooftop to rooftop. In recent years, seeking to break that chain reaction, the state has mandated use of fire-resistant building materials for new housing and required property owners to clear dead vegetation around homes to deprive fires of fuel.

The modest results of the policies have prompted the state – in the courts and the Legislature – to seek to rein in residential growth by imposing greater control over local land-use planning. The tough-love strategy to save homes and lives occurs as drought imperils California, with wildfires burning 14,000 acres through May 9, or 12,000 more than at the same time last year.

What legal action has California taken to try to limit new housing in fire-prone areas?

The state attorney general’s office joined a pair of lawsuits in March that environmental groups brought against San Diego County to halt two projects that would add 3,000 housing units on almost 2,000 acres of scrubland outside Chula Vista. The decision followed a similar move a month earlier in Lake County, where developers seek to build 1,400 homes and 850 hotel and resort units on 16,000 acres of rolling grasslands north of San Francisco.

In court filings, then-Attorney General Xavier Becerra, who since has become secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, asserted that county officials neglected to adequately analyze wildfire risk before approving the plans. His “motion to intervene” in San Diego County points out that 68 fires have burned within five miles of the project site over the past 100 years. In Lake County, wildfire has struck the proposed development area four times since 2014, including last summer.

The state’s action arises from an update to the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) in 2018 that directs local officials to evaluate the threat that wildfire poses to a new development. San Diego and Lake county officials insist they sufficiently assessed the risk, and further contend that the projects would address a shortage of housing – an ongoing statewide crisis – and provide much needed property tax revenue to fund schools and roads.

The CEQA changes have also cast into limbo a proposal to build 19,300 homes on 6,700 acres in rural Los Angeles County. A judge there blocked construction last month after finding that the developer failed to properly consider the project’s potential impact on wildfire danger in the region.

Adrees Latif/Reuters/File
Chula Vista firefighter Rudy Diaz monitors the LNU Lightning Complex fire as it engulfs brush in Lake County, California, on Aug. 23, 2020.

What measures are state lawmakers proposing to curb construction in high-risk fire zones? 

State Sen. Henry Stern has introduced a bill to ban new housing in areas identified as “very high fire hazard severity zones” by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, known as Cal Fire. 

The Democrat from the Southern California enclave of Calabasas lost his home to wildfire in 2018. His legislation takes aim at the primacy of local control, stating that “approval of a new development within a zone of high fire danger ... is a matter of statewide concern and is not a municipal affair.”

Senator Stern has described the bill as “a wake-up call” to show that planning decisions carry consequences beyond a city’s or county’s borders in the form of escalating costs borne by state taxpayers for firefighting, emergency response, and disaster relief. 

Cal Fire designates high-risk fire zones based on terrain, vegetation, moisture levels, and weather patterns. The size and number of those areas, where almost 3 million people live, continue to grow as the climate turns warmer and drier.

Sen. Mike McGuire, a Democrat from Healdsburg, has written a measure that would force cities and counties to adopt new state fire safety standards to build housing in high-risk fire zones, with stronger protections for larger projects.

The bill would prohibit local officials from approving a development that lacked clear evacuation routes, access points for first responders, vegetation fuel breaks, and other safeguards. “If certain common-sense health and safety requirements can’t be met,” he said late last year, “we shouldn’t be building at all.”

How is California trying to nurture a sense of shared responsibility for wildfire prevention and safety?

Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a $536 million wildfire budget bill last month that provides $25 million to help homeowners retrofit houses with fire-resistant materials. The “home-hardening” pilot program will enable the state to pursue an additional $75 million in federal funding to expand the effort.

The U.S. Forest Service’s guidelines for creating fire-adapted communities include building and retrofitting houses to withstand wildfires and clearing dead vegetation from around homes – crucial precautions for residents living in the wildland-urban interface.

A pair of bills would encourage individual and collective participation in developing fire-adapted communities. Senator Stern has proposed establishing statewide training and grant programs to entice property owners to retrofit their homes and comply with “defensible space” requirements for removing vegetation around homes.

Another measure would create a $50 million program within the state’s Department of Conservation to assist local and regional leaders with fostering fire-adapted communities. Democratic Assembly Member Jim Wood of Santa Rosa, who wrote the legislation, has gained grim familiarity with the toll of wildfires through his work as a forensic dentist, helping authorities identify victims of recent infernos in Northern California.

“We need to prepare for fire season like we are preparing for an impending hurricane,” he told The Sacramento Bee last month. “Once the fire starts, it’s too late. That preparation work needs to start happening right now.”

Why is Denmark trying to send Syrians back to their war-torn country?

Denmark’s asylum policies prioritize return over integration. But that can be life-threatening when the country one must return to is Syria.

Amelia
Courtesy of Mohamed Alata
Demonstrators show support for Syrians who have had their residency permits revoked in Copenhagen, Denmark, May 20, 2021.

Two ways to read the story

  • Quick Read
  • Deep Read ( 7 Min. )

Syria remains in the hands of President Bashar al-Assad, who destroyed large swaths of the country to stay in power. But Denmark has concluded it is safe for Syrians who fled to the Nordic country to return to Damascus, and is rapidly revoking or refusing to extend residency permits. The move has earned the country a barrage of criticism.

Syria experts reject the notion that Damascus and its surroundings can be considered safe as long as the country is run by Mr. Assad. But by declaring Damascus safe, Denmark has shifted the ground of debate.

“What the Danish authorities are assessing is whether the Syrians have a risk of being persecuted on an individual basis,” says Lisa Blinkenberg of Amnesty International. “It is not enough to say that there is a lot of violence going on. You need to prove that you are individually persecuted.”

At the heart of the matter are broad Danish concerns that migrants and refugees are undermining the country’s societal cohesion, which many Danes believe depends on a shared language and cultural heritage. The effort to stem migration is popular across the Danish political spectrum, despite the threat it poses to Syrians.

Collapse

Why is Denmark trying to send Syrians back to their war-torn country?

Sabriya struggles to sleep on good days. Now it’s next to impossible. She is terrified the Danish government will eventually send her back to Syria because her residency permit was revoked. If her appeal fails, she will be facing the choice of going back “voluntarily” to the country she fled or residing in a deportation center.

“How can I go back to the regime that turned my children into orphans, displaced us, and leveled our houses with bombs?” the widow asks, stressing that under no circumstances would she return to Syria. “I have no one left there. All my relatives have been scattered and suffered their own tragedies.”

Syria remains in the hands of President Bashar al-Assad, who destroyed large swaths of the country to stay in power. But Denmark has concluded it is safe for Syrians to return to Damascus and is rapidly revoking or refusing to extend residency permits on that basis. The move has earned the country – which once took pride as the first signatory of the 1951 United Nations refugee convention – a barrage of criticism.

At the heart of the matter are broad Danish concerns that migrants and refugees are undermining the country’s societal cohesion, which many Danes believe depends on a shared language and cultural heritage. The effort to stem migration, including asylum requests, is popular across the Danish political spectrum, despite the deadly impact it could have on vulnerable Syrian refugees.

“The whole idea is to send a message to both refugees who are here and people who are not here yet: Don’t come to Denmark,” says Karen Nielsen Breidahl, associate professor in political science at Aalborg University.

The safety of Damascus

Political scientists say the government’s decision reflects a long-running effort to make wealthy Denmark less appealing to asylum-seekers. Controversial measures, such as stripping new arrivals of their jewelry and separating young couples, multiplied after the influx of migrants to Europe in 2015-16. Concerns that foreigners are a strain on the Danish welfare system and hurt social cohesion predate that crisis by a few decades, but now cut across party lines.

The Danish government says it is convinced that it is now safe for Syrians to return to the Damascus area. In a statement handed out by his office, Danish Minister of Immigration and Integration Mattias Tesfaye said, “the general security situation in the area in and around Damascus has improved to such an extent that the need for protection for persons who are not individually persecuted ... has ceased to exist.”

And Mr. Tesfaye, whose father was an Ethiopian refugee, has been adamant that refugees should return home to rebuild their lives there as soon as conditions allow. “Denmark has been open and honest from day one,” he said. “We have made it clear to the Syrian refugees that their residence permit is temporary and that the permit can be revoked if the need for protection ceases to exist.”

Syria experts – including the vast majority of those consulted by the Danish authorities – reject the notion that Damascus and its surroundings can be considered safe as long as the country is run by Mr. Assad. The Syrian conflict, now in its 10th year, has killed over half a million people, including tens of thousands of people tortured to death in regime-controlled detention centers.

Martin Sylvest/Ritzau Scanpix/Reuters/File
Danish Minister of Immigration and Integration Mattias Tesfaye, standing at Holmen Church in Copenhagen, Denmark, has been adamant that Syrians given residency permits in Denmark must return home as soon as conditions allow.

Lisa Blinkenberg, a senior adviser at Amnesty International, notes Syrians returning to government-held areas must go through security clearances. “This involves interrogation by the security forces and these same forces have been behind widespread and systematic human rights violations and crimes against humanity,” she says. “We are talking about torture, extrajudicial executions, and enforced disappearances.”

But by declaring Damascus safe, Denmark has shifted the ground of debate for Syrians trying to argue they would still be in danger there. Syrian refugees stress that the violent government that triggered their displacement remains in place, along with its brutal security apparatus. Denmark focuses on the absence of clashes.

“What the Danish authorities are assessing is whether the Syrians have a risk of being persecuted on an individual basis,” Ms. Blinkenberg says. “It is not enough to say that there is a lot of violence going on. You need to prove that you are individually persecuted.”

“Denmark does not take these feelings into account”

Because family members receive different levels of protection when seeking asylum in Denmark, that heightens the risk that they will be split up.

That possibility overshadowed the Eid celebrations of the Alata family, who came to Denmark in a staggered fashion. The first to arrive after surviving the “journey of death” across the Mediterranean was Abdo Alata. He has been the de facto head of the family since 2012, when snipers shot his father off his motorbike and then executed him in Darayya, one of the first areas near Damascus to rebel against Mr. Assad.

Mr. Alata has political asylum in Denmark and lives in the port city of Vejle. His brother, Mohamed, got that status only after turning 18. But their mother, Sabriya, and two sisters had their permits revoked just a few weeks ago. They worry Sabriya risks arrest on return to Syria because she gave food and water to protesters, and because Abdo and Mohamed dodged military service.

Courtesy of Abdo Alata
Abdo Alata lives with his mother, Sabriya, and sisters Tasnim (far left) and Sahed (far right) in the Danish port city of Vejle. Mr. Alata has refugee status, but Denmark revoked the temporary protection status granted to his mother and sisters because it considers the situation in Damascus, Syria, safe for them.

They also fret over how sisters Tasnim and Sahed would cope in Syria, since life in Denmark is all they know. The girls speak Danish fluently, have Danish friends, and don’t know how to write Arabic.

“The little ones don’t know the details or the scale of crimes in Syria,” says Mr. Alata. “They only know our father in pictures. I raised them. Sometimes they call me baba [father] but Denmark does not take these feelings into account.”

Anxiety also filled Belqis Ibrahim as she drove her parents for a routine COVID-19 test earlier this month in Aarhus, Denmark’s second-largest city. “Every time I listen to the news, I get stressed,” says Ms. Ibrahim, who recently completed studies in software engineering. “From the moment we got here, there have been discussions in parliament about sending Syrians back.”

“Refugees are seen as problematic”

The dominance of far-right and conservative nationalist values came into sharp focus with the tough-on-migration campaign promises that returned the leftist Social Democrats to power in the summer of 2019. Those promises became policies – building on a February 2019 “paradigm shift” law that had secured the backing of major parties and puts an emphasis on returns over integration. Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen now aims for zero asylum-seekers.

The Nordic country is not too far from achieving that goal. In 2020, the country accepted 1,515 asylum applications – a drop from 3,500 in 2017. Only 1% of the 2020 requests were granted in Denmark, compared to 11% in Sweden, which handled nearly 13,000 applications, and 88% in Germany, which tackled more than 100,000 that year.

“The Social Democrats realized early on that they have to be strict if they want to keep power and form governments,” says Professor Breidahl.

She notes that there is a widespread perception – particularly among the decisive demographic of older, white- and blue-collar voters – that social cohesion and high social trust in Denmark require a homogeneous society. The welfare state is valued by all, but over time it has become less inclusive.

“Refugees are seen as problematic, especially refugees from Muslim and African countries,” says Professor Breidahl. “It began with the political parties who wanted to gain voters but now the political parties are also constructing the voters and the way they think about refugees and immigrants. There are so many wrong pictures about what a refugee is, what is an asylum-seeker.”

The result, she adds, is stricter and stricter rules that are demotivating even for those who have the residency permits and are trying to integrate. Municipal social workers who try to facilitate integration through language courses and professional training are required to raise the option of return at every meeting, not just with Syrians, but also Iranians, Iraqis, and South Americans.

“The system is full of dilemmas,” says Professor Breidahl, who researches global migration flows and their impact on the welfare system. “It is really difficult.”

Expulsions on hold

To date, about 400 Syrians, including minors, have had their cases rejected by the Danish immigration services. But under criticism both domestic and abroad, forced returns have been ruled out by the government.

Courtesy of Rahal family
Khadijah Rahal and her husband, Nader, who live in Roskilde, Denmark, hope to successfully appeal the Danish government's revocation of their residency permits, as their daughter did.

Regardless, the rejections cannot result in any immediate expulsions for a simple legal reason: Syrians cannot be forcibly returned as long as Copenhagen’s diplomatic ties with Damascus remain broken. That leaves Charlotte Slente, head of the Danish Refugee Council, puzzled. “It is pointless to remove people from the life they are trying to build in Denmark and put them in a waiting position without an end date, after they have fled the horrible conflict in their homeland.”

Still, since 2019, about 250 Syrians with legal residency in Denmark have been repatriated voluntarily, taking up the government on a substantive cash offer of $28,400, according to the Ministry of Immigration and Integration. But some, like Khadijah Rahal’s daughter, Nevien, have been able to mount successful appeals against having their status revoked. She hopes she and her husband will be able to do the same.

“For someone who has problems with the Syrian regime, you can give them all the millions of the world, but they will not go back,” says Ms. Rahal. “Over there it is certain death. Here it is psychological warfare.”

Why Indonesia’s rice paddy expansion is raising climate concerns

A desire for self-sufficiency in food production can conflict with environmental stewardship. In Indonesia’s peat forests, that conflict has serious implications for the world’s carbon emissions. 

Amelia
Fieni Aprilia/IWMF/Special to The Christian Science Monitor
Ahmad Darmaji, a farmer, handles rice plants in Belanti Siam, Central Kalimantan, Indonesia, on April 7, 2021. Farmers say that rice variants supplied by the Ministry of Agriculture didn't perform as well as expected at the showcase site for rice cultivation on peatland.

Two ways to read the story

  • Quick Read
  • Deep Read ( 9 Min. )

Indonesians are still living with the consequences of the pell-mell conversion of carbon-rich peat forests on Borneo island for rice cultivation in the 1990s. It led to recurrent forest fires that spew poisonous haze into the atmosphere. 

Now the parched peatland is being sized up for another ambitious project to produce rice and other crops. President Joko Widodo says Indonesia needs to be more self-sufficient in food production and wants to convert vast tracts of land on Borneo and the island of Sumatra, a combined area larger than Connecticut. 

At a site in Central Kalimantan, farmers are planting new rice variants that are supposed to produce higher yields. So far, not all farmers have seen the benefits, and critics say the peatland project is ill-conceived. Safrudin Mahendra, an environmental campaigner, asks, "If it fails on the showcase site, what will happen in other areas that have never been used since the 1990s?” 

Collapse

Why Indonesia’s rice paddy expansion is raising climate concerns

By canoe, it’s a 20-minute ride from the nearest village to the last piece of paradise in the heart of Borneo.

The destination is a small research station in a tropical forest that is home to orangutans, proboscis monkeys, majestic hornbills, rare and unusual pitcher plants, and insects in a staggering range of forms and colors. The river is pitch-black, and the sky is reflected on its surface. The final approach is an alley of lush forests; sunlight filters through the trees and lights the way to a gated entrance. 

The research station lies in Sebangau National Park in Central Kalimantan, one of the island’s last undisturbed peat-swamp forests. Scientists say this kind of forest plays a crucial role in mitigating climate change because it grows on peatland, a soil made of partially decomposed organic matter trapped in the water for thousands of years. The tannin-rich water prevents microbes from fully decomposing the matter and releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

So far, Sebangau has been spared the fate of other carbon-rich forests that were cleared for rice production in the 1990s. Under President Suharto, Indonesia converted 1.6 million hectares (almost 4 million acres) of peat forest for his Mega Rice Project, which became one of the biggest agricultural catastrophes in modern times. The rice failed to grow in acidic soil, and the irrigation canals that were built drained the waters that had inundated peat forests.

The result: parched peatland that burned repeatedly, spreading haze across Southeast Asia.

Fieni Aprilia/IWMF/Special to The Christian Science Monitor
Peat forest in Sebangau National Park in Palangkaraya, Central Kalimantan, Indonesia, on April 6, 2021. Forests that grow on peatland play a crucial role in mitigating climate change because they store so much carbon dioxide.

Indonesia’s recurrent peatland infernos not only pose a dire threat to the health of its people and its neighbors. They also cause major spikes in Indonesia’s carbon emissions that contribute to the global climate crisis. In 2015, Indonesia ranked fourth in the world for greenhouse gas emissions, ahead of industrial powerhouses like Japan and Germany.

And, just as the clearing of the Amazon River basin depletes the capacity of its tropical forests both to soak up and to retain carbon, the mismanagement of peatland in Indonesia makes it harder to curb its emissions.  

Indonesia’s parched peatland accounted for 76% of its forest fires in 2019, according to an analysis by David Gaveau, a landscape ecologist who studies deforestation. In the same year, at least half of the mega-fires in Borneo, an island larger than Texas, started in Central Kalimantan, says Fatur Fatkhurohman, a spatial-planning consultant in Palangkaraya, the provincial capital.

Now President Joko Widodo has a plan for this degraded land: Plant rice in vast quantities so that a nation of 276 million people always has enough to eat. The promise is that rice cultivation on Borneo will also spread prosperity and help prevent forest fires.

Put simply, this time will be different. Or so the story goes. 

Jacob Turcotte/Staff

President Widodo’s government insists that technology and better planning will make his project succeed where Mr. Suharto’s failed so spectacularly. It’s a high-stakes strategy that has consequences far beyond Indonesia’s borders, given its outsize greenhouse gas emissions.

At the Sebangau research center run by the Center for International Cooperation in Sustainable Management of Tropical Peatland (CIMTROP), the new rice-planting project is cause for concern. Kitso Kusin, a senior researcher, says Indonesia needs to conserve its remaining peat-swamp forests like Sebangau and to replant the degraded peatlands with native trees. He and other critics worry that agricultural land conversion on a mass scale could lead to more devastating fires and deadly haze. 

There are also serious questions about the effectiveness of the technology that underlies the government’s ambitious production targets. Is it really different this time? And what happens to farmers if the peatland resists their efforts?

Mr. Suharto’s rice project “made Central Kalimantan into a source of disaster,” Mr. Kusin says. If the new one fails, he warns, “we’re going to be the victims again.” 

Food estates larger than Connecticut

Indonesia’s plan to produce rice and other food crops was initially framed as a response to the pandemic and the risk of international food shortages. “Providing food stocks is a strategic agenda that we need to adopt to anticipate a food crisis [caused] by the COVID-19 pandemic,” Mr. Widodo said in September 2020.

Mr. Widodo’s proposed food estates would eventually cover an even larger area than Mr. Suharto’s: at least 2 million hectares of land on the island of Sumatra and in Kalimantan, a combined area larger than Connecticut. The first stage is to plant rice on 165,000 hectares of former Mega Rice Project land in Kalimantan.

Fieni Aprilia/IWMF/Special to The Christian Science Monitor
A group of female farmers crosses a rice paddy in Belanti Siam, Central Kalimantan, Indonesia, on April 7, 2021. The site is a showcase for Indonesian President Joko Widodo's food estate program, which could eventually cover an area larger than Connecticut.

Yiyi Sulaeman, the head of the Ministry of Agriculture’s Wetland Agriculture Research agency, says this stage of the project is feasible because the peatland has been consumed by repeated fires, leaving only a thin layer of peat and mineral soil on which to plant rice.

Mr. Sulaeman says the project can also be a strategy to prevent forest fires. “If we keep on neglecting these degraded lands, the chance of forest fires is higher,” he says. But when the land is used for farming, the farmers will look after it and put out any wildfires.

Researchers at the Ministry of Agriculture have developed a range of homegrown technologies to improve the soil and boost productivity. These include organic fertilizers to decrease soil acidity and peatland-friendly rice variants designed to have higher yields and to resist disease, says Susi Susilawati, an agriculture ministry researcher in Palangkaraya.

“Modern tools are needed”

To test its technology, the Ministry of Agriculture is using a 1,000-hectare rice-growing area in Belanti Siam as a showcase for the entire food estate project. Its researchers are helping farmers there to apply their research to peatland crop production.   

Last October, Mr. Widodo visited the site and spoke optimistically about the program’s prospects in Central Kalimantan, referring to fertilizer-spraying drones and floating tractors designed to plow two hectares of land a day. “This [technology] is an acceleration of speed because we are going to work on a very vast area,” he said. “Mechanization and modern tools are needed.”

Fieni Aprilia/IWMF/Special to The Christian Science Monitor
An Indonesian Ministry of Agriculture staff member tends an experimental bed at a testing field in Palangkaraya, Central Kalimantan, Indonesia, on April 7, 2021. Indonesia has developed rice variants for planting on degraded peatland.

On a recent cloudy afternoon in Belanti Siam, there was little sign of this acceleration of speed – and indications that not everything was going to plan.

Farmers were working the rice fields but without the promised new technologies. No floating tractor could be seen, only manual plows.

Most of the farmers are migrants who moved here in the 1990s and at first struggled to grow rice on cleared peatland; the recurrent fires eventually made it feasible to plant. Now blocks of yellow and green rice paddies stretch to the horizon. Some farmers wore conical hats, and the afternoon breeze gently lifted them from their heads. As they pulled rice seedlings from the soil, they chatted and laughed.

Ahmad Darmaji, one of the farmers, said they were using a variant called Hibrida Suppadi 89 that is known by farmers to resist pyrite, a toxic compound found in degraded peatland. The variant came not from the government but from a commercial distributor.

Safrudin Mahendra, the director of Save Our Borneo, a conservation nonprofit, says many farmers in Belanti Siam are now reluctant to use technologies supplied by the government. He found that those farmers who did follow the government’s guidance had disappointing results.

“Several farmers’ groups whom we met in Belanti Siam did not harvest anything at all,” he says.

Earlier plantings, lower yields

While one of the government’s variants worked well, many did not, says Heriyanto, a farmer who owns three hectares of land at the site, in a phone interview. The variant that he was given produced a much lower yield.

“It was an extraordinary drop. I could usually get eight to nine tons per two hectares with Suppadi 89, but I only got two tons of rice” per two hectares, he says. Mr. Heriyanto, who like some Indonesians goes by one name, adds that his crop was infected by a fungus. 

Fieni Aprilia/IWMF/Special to The Christian Science Monitor
Cleared peatland ready to be converted into a rice field in Central Kalimantan in Indonesia, April 7, 2021. Indonesia wants to expand rice production in degraded peat forests that have been the source of mega-fires that spew toxic haze across Southeast Asia.

Mr. Safrudin says the food estate project is flawed because Jakarta hasn’t clearly set out the rules, and its approach is confusing farmers. For example, he says, the government pressured farmers to plant earlier than usual last year, in October, so as to be able to harvest three crops a year rather than two.

That meant that farmers did not wait – as they normally do – until the season of high winds (and mouse reproduction) was over. The result? The paddies failed to produce.

That is a warning signal for what lies ahead, he cautions.

“We’ve already seen a failure,” he says. “And if it fails on the showcase site, what will happen in other areas that have never been used since the 1990s?”

Ms. Susilawati, the government researcher, insists that planting did not start until late November, pointing to a schedule at her agency’s base camp in Belanti Siam. But that is not how Mr. Heriyanto and other farmers remember it.

Ms. Susilawati told the Monitor that the first planting cycle was a success because the average yield was 4.6 tons of rice per hectare. She admits that some variants produced low yields and contracted diseases, adding that extreme weather led farmers to harvest prematurely. Heavy rains also caused humidity and disease. But crop failures only occurred on 26 hectares, or less than 3% of fields, she says.

Ms. Susilawati says farmers at Belanti Siam are still eager to plant her agency’s new rice variants. As for the floating tractors, that’s not her agency’s role. “We only teach farmers how to use this mechanization,” says Ms. Susilawati. She adds that farmers are already using two tractors for land preparation.

Irrigation risks and rewards

But the challenge of converting Indonesia’s peatland for sustainable food production goes beyond a lack of tractors and reliable rice variants.

When he visited other project sites last year in Talio and Dadahup villages, Mr. Kusin found that their crops had failed to thrive. In those sites, the problem is irrigation: Too much water leads to flooding, but insufficient water means pyrite will poison the crops.

Mr. Sulaeman says this problem can be managed. The government is now revitalizing irrigation canals built in the 1990s. This system is “designed by experts on soil science and hydrologists. ... It won’t create negative environmental impact,” he says.  

Still, Mr. Kusin worries that this could be a double-edged sword since canals built around deep peat areas could deplete the carbon-rich water. “Canals always decrease the height of the water table,” he says.

Fieni Aprilia/IWMF/Special to The Christian Science Monitor
Peat forest floor at Sebangau National Park in Palangkaraya, Central Kalimantan, Indonesia, April 6, 2021. Vast peat forests once blanketed the island of Borneo, where Central Kalimantan is a province.

More dried-up peatland means a greater risk of fires that spew more carbon and toxic haze into the atmosphere, which experts say have caused respiratory illness for millions of people across Southeast Asia. But those who have suffered the most are the residents of Central Kalimantan.

These include Mr. Kusin’s colleagues. One of them is CIMTROP’s founder, Suwido Limin, an agricultural professor at the University of Palangkaraya who spoke out against Mr. Suharto’s mega project. Since the 1997 haze disaster, not only did Mr. Limin study the science of peatland restoration in his lab, but he also went into the field to fight wildfires and to block canals that were depleting peat swamps.

He died in 2016 after being diagnosed with a cancer that his colleagues believe was the result of his repeated exposure to fires and haze.

Mr. Kusin worries that if the food estate continues without careful planning, “our struggles would be in vain,” and “it’s us, [the people in Central Kalimantan], who will suffer again.”

This reporting was supported by the Round Earth Media program of the International Women’s Media Foundation.

Jacob Turcotte/Staff

The Respect Project

Bridging the conflicts that divide us

Is any conflict unsolvable? This author doesn’t think so.

The pull of conflict can be hypnotic. But in her book “High Conflict,” Amanda Ripley explores how it is broken by genuine listening. As part of our Respect Project, she talks with the Monitor about how we can all find practical ways forward.

Amelia

Two ways to read the story

  • Quick Read
  • Deep Read ( 7 Min. )

The political divide in the United States got Amanda Ripley thinking: How do ordinary people become mired in extreme, yet commonplace, polarization? The result is her new book, “High Conflict.”

In that kind of intense conflict, one imagines adversaries as evil and less than human. Ms. Ripley went searching for examples of people and communities who had been stuck in high conflict and found a way out. That led her to meet with Democrats in New York City and Republicans in rural Michigan – even to talk with experts for NASA who work on diminishing conflict among crews of astronauts in space.

Ms. Ripley describes high conflict as an invisible force with a hypnotic pull. The initial reason for various disputes becomes less important than the self-perpetuating, us-versus-them battle that takes on a cosmic importance for those in its thrall, she explains.

The Monitor spoke with the author about how to become aware of high conflict, and how to avoid getting drawn into it. The goal, she says, is not surrendering, agreeing, engaging in bipartisan unity, or avoiding conflict. It is a kind of listening that brings an “awakening to something you hadn’t understood before.” 

Collapse

Is any conflict unsolvable? This author doesn’t think so.

Suzy Wagner/Courtesy of Amanda Ripley
Amanda Ripley is the author of "High Conflict: Why We Get Trapped and How We Get Out.”

Amanda Ripley does not like to think of any conflict as unsolvable. Her new book, “High Conflict,” reveals that progress is possible even in the most bitter, entrenched, and violent clashes. 

The genesis for Ms. Ripley’s book was the political divide in the United States. She began wondering how ordinary people become mired in extreme, yet commonplace, polarization. It’s the type of strife that keeps people awake at night, encourages them to start flamethrower tirades on Twitter, or entices some to cut off relationships with friends and family. In what she terms high conflict, one imagines adversaries as evil and less than human. 

Ms. Ripley, an investigative journalist for The Atlantic, went searching for examples of people and communities who had been stuck in high conflict and found a way out. That quest led her to meet with Democrats in New York City and Republicans in rural Michigan. In the rival gang territories of Chicago and in civil war-torn Colombia, Ms. Ripley met individuals who’ve put down their guns and now help others to extricate themselves from violent disputes. She even consulted experts for NASA who work on diminishing conflict among crews of astronauts in space.

Ms. Ripley describes high conflict as an invisible force with a hypnotic pull. The initial reason for various disputes becomes less important than the self-perpetuating, us-versus-them battle that takes on a cosmic importance for those in its thrall. The Monitor spoke with the author about how to become aware of high conflict, how to avoid getting drawn into it, and why the dry kindling for conflagrations can be dampened by showing genuine respect for others.

Q: Can you share your thoughts on why respect for others is so important to mitigate conflict?

There are different conditions, or fire starters, that tend to lead to high conflict. One of them is the extreme opposite of respect, which is humiliation. Evelin Lindner, the psychologist and physician who studies conflict and war, calls humiliation the nuclear bomb of the emotions. It’s probably the most underappreciated force explaining international crises, domestic violence, gang warfare. All manner of high conflict often is really, at some level, about feelings of humiliation. One thing that I’ve learned is to never embarrass your opponents. It just backfires. It may feel good to you, but it just hits at the core of our human need to belong and to matter. 

Q: Sometimes we lose sight of respecting others – how does that happen?

Distance makes it easier for us to caricature each other, and we don’t know each other. And at the same time, we are also quite capable of caricaturing someone we know very well. So it’s not just a function of distance, although that’s often the case with political conflict or ethnic conflict where there’s segregation.

There’s a few things that I find speed up that process. One of them is “conflict entrepreneurs.” There are people around you, or platforms, or pundits who are exploiting the conflict for their own ends, that can really accelerate that disrespect. Conflict entrepreneurs can get us into oversimplifying or categorizing each other. 

Q: One of the solutions to high conflict is something called contact theory. What’s the basic idea behind it?

Contact theory is the idea that people from different groups will, under certain key conditions, tend to become less prejudiced towards one another after spending time together. And it is really the most studied, proven intervention for prejudice. 

It’s also a delicate art. So it doesn’t mean we should just take people of different races or religions and put them in a summer camp together. That has been tried many times. Interaction with the other side is not enough. Just because we play basketball together does not just lead to more understanding all by itself. It’s ideal if people don’t just talk, but actually work together on some kind of common problem. It triggers our instincts for cooperation rather than competition. What problem are they going to solve together that they both care about? That creates a third identity outside of the conflict. And we know it’s a lot easier to create a new identity than to get rid of an old one. 

Q: How important is truly listening to others? How does that engender trust and respect?

I’d been a journalist for almost 20 years when I started working on this, and I’ve interviewed thousands of people from all walks of life. I thought that I was listening. I got schooled pretty quickly in my first mediation training where I was told to try to actively listen to someone and play back what I thought they had said that was most important to them. And then check if I got it right. 

When you do that – which is one of the listening techniques called looping for understanding – what you find is a couple of things. First, it is hard to keep your head and your mind focused on what is most important to that person, not to you. We make all these cascading assumptions about what someone’s talking about, what they mean, what they’re going to say next, and we’re frequently wrong. So that’s why it’s really good to check if you got it right and then try again. 

When you do get it right, this almost magical thing happens where the person’s whole posture changes, their face lights up, and they say, “exactly.” When people feel heard like this, they behave differently. They say more nuanced things afterwards, less extreme things. They admit to more internal ambivalence. They’re more open to ideas and information they didn’t want to hear. 

Q: Do you have any recommendations about what individuals can do to avoid getting pulled into that vortex of high conflict on social media?

One thing to do is to just distance yourself from the conflict entrepreneurs in your feed if you’re on Facebook or YouTube or whatever. Also realize that the skills required to talk about conflict online are not intuitive. I do a lot of looping now online. If someone challenges me and seems to be doing it in good faith, I will say, “It sounds like you feel that I’ve oversimplified this problem. Is that right?” And then I’ll try to take it off Twitter to DM [direct messaging], so it’s not public. Or, ideally, if you know the person, you want to talk on the phone, but you could also email them. Make them feel heard first – genuinely heard. And then you can get somewhere more interesting and you might learn something. So I definitely engage differently. I try to really resist the urge to have a sort of clever comeback.  

Q: Can you tell us how some of the individuals in your book practiced a loving, respectful outlook for others even if they still had fundamental differences and disagreements with them?

There are some cool tricks that I’ve learned from the conflict survivors featured in the book. One of them is Curtis Toler, who was a fairly high-ranking gang leader in Chicago and now works with at-risk young men and women in Chicago, to help them make the same shift he made out of that conflict, but make it more quickly. He said that sometimes he will imagine the person he’s talking to as a tiny child, which we all were at one point. And literally in his mind, try to bring them back to that 3-year-old. It’s a way for him to access their humanity. To see them the way they once were, and a way they could be again, a sort of innocence. 

Photos by Sean Patrick Forrest and Laurie Phuong Ertley/Courtesy of Amanda Ripley
Curtis Toler (left), formerly a gang member, helps at-risk young men and women leave gang conflict behind, as he did. Gary Friedman (right), a conflict expert, makes a point of engaging genuinely with neighbors he disagrees with.

Gary Friedman, who was the conflict expert who ran for office and immediately got ensnared in high conflict, actively engages with people he disagrees with in his neighborhood. He’s really into gardening. His other neighbor, with whom he often disagrees, is really into gardening. So he tries to build up the balance in the ledger books by genuinely talking with authentic interest about her roses. It’s not fake. It’s important that you’re not faking it. But it’s a way to complicate the narrative in his own mind, and in her mind, about who the enemy actually is.

Q: You describe the alternative to high conflict as good conflict – a situation in which you disagree with the other person but you still have a basic respect for them that allows for productive dialogue. Can you describe what that sort of respect looks like?

When you cultivate good conflict between people who are extremely divided, people want more of it. There’s almost a transcendent feeling that arises even in deep disagreement. 

Martha Ackelsberg – a very engaged, progressive Jewish activist in New York City who ended up going on a homestay exchange with rural Trump supporters in Michigan – has a great way of putting it, which is why I ended the book with her quote. I’m going to read it.

“I feel like it’s brought out the best in me,” Martha told me and I knew exactly what she meant. I have had the same feeling, a sense of being fully alive in good conflict. And then she says, “I wish I could appear everywhere in my life the way I felt called to appear in these two times” – that’s on those exchanges she did – “present, open, able to be surprised.” 

And so you see the distinction there. She’s not surrendering; she’s not agreeing. She’s not engaged in bipartisan unity, nor is she avoiding the conflict. She feels like the person she wants to be – arguing, wondering, revising, awakening to something you hadn’t understood before.  

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Other headline stories we’re watching

(Get live updates throughout the day.)

The Monitor's View

Finally, a summer outdoors for kids: Play on!

Two ways to read the story

  • Quick Read
  • Deep Read ( 3 Min. )

“Let children play.”

That’s the theme of summer 2021 after a school year with young noses largely pressed close to computer screens, the result of the necessity for remote learning. Despite concerns that students have fallen behind academically this school year, many educators and child experts say this year’s summer recess needs to be a time away from formal learning. While restrictions continue to evolve on how closely children can play together, the benefits of play are so apparent that all entrusted with the care of children are exploring how to play safely.

“You can’t cancel summer for kids, you just can’t,” Philadelphia Parks & Recreation Commissioner Kathryn Ott Lovell told Bloomberg. “There has got to be a safe way for us to save summer for the kids of Philadelphia.”

Around the United States and the world, the summer cry is rising: “Let the fun begin!”

Collapse

Finally, a summer outdoors for kids: Play on!

Reuters
Children ride on a swing at a playground in Karachi, Pakistan, May 14.

“Let children play.” That’s the theme of summer 2021 after a school year with young noses largely pressed close to computer screens, the result of the necessity for remote learning. Despite concerns that students have fallen behind academically this school year, many educators and child experts say this year’s summer recess needs to be a time away from formal learning. While restrictions continue to evolve on how closely children can play together, the benefits of play are so apparent that all entrusted with the care of children are exploring how to play safely.

Finland already builds 15-minute outdoor breaks into every hour of schooling. Play, Finnish education expert Pasi Sahlberg told The Guardian, can improve grades, reduce stress, and promote general happiness. Right now, he says, children “need that much more than they need academic pressure, graded assignments and excessive screen time. ... It can be boiled down to a single phrase: let children play.”

Statistics show a huge interest among U.S. parents in providing a summer camp experience for their offspring. Last year, few summer camps were open. In 2021, many more children will be able to participate in the joys of camp. 

“This year more than any other year, it feels very important for kids to be out and be able to be free and be under the trees and be able to connect,” says Tanequa Hampton, camp director at the Kalamazoo Nature Center in Michigan. Some camp activities will still be modified, including the use of masks and social distancing, she told MLive, an online Michigan news provider. But campers will still be able to connect with nature and each other through traditional activities such as art projects and hikes to ponds to discover plants and bugs.

Still, many kids will be home for the summer. With the pandemic easing widely, cities are ramping up their efforts to bring more summer play opportunities back to children.

In Boston, Super Bowl champion football player Rob Gronkowski, formerly a member of the New England Patriots, has donated $1.2 million to renovate and modernize a playground along the Charles River Esplanade, one of the largest private gifts ever made to a Massachusetts state park.

Children have been in a kind of lockdown for more than a year, experts point out. They need formal playgrounds but also ways to play nearer to home as well. In Philadelphia, the city expects to close some 300 streets to traffic on weekdays between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. On each street, a volunteer supervisor will run a kind of informal urban day camp. Meals and snacks will be combined with activities from drawing with chalk, to dancing to music, to playing with water. Philadelphia is also sneaking literacy and math activities into the play, providing book wagons and hiding arithmetic lessons in the games.

“You can’t cancel summer for kids, you just can’t,” Philadelphia Parks & Recreation Commissioner Kathryn Ott Lovell told Bloomberg. “There has got to be a safe way for us to save summer for the kids of Philadelphia.”

Around the U.S. and the world, the summer cry is rising: “Let the fun begin!”

A Christian Science Perspective

About this feature

Each weekday, the Monitor includes one clearly labeled religious article offering spiritual insight on contemporary issues, including the news. The publication – in its various forms – is produced for anyone who cares about the progress of the human endeavor around the world and seeks news reported with compassion, intelligence, and an essentially constructive lens. For many, that caring has religious roots. For many, it does not. The Monitor has always embraced both audiences. The Monitor is owned by a church – The First Church of Christ, Scientist, in Boston – whose founder was concerned with both the state of the world and the quality of available news.

Primitive Christianity ... still healing today

  • Quick Read
  • Read or Listen ( 4 Min. )

Are the teachings of Christ Jesus still relevant today, over 2,000 years later? Absolutely – Christian healing is possible right here and now, as a man experienced after being involved in a serious accident.

Collapse

Primitive Christianity ... still healing today

Today's Christian Science Perspective audio edition

“ ‘Primitive Christianity and its lost element of healing’ – what are you talking about?” asked a friend. “What does this have to do with our life today, in the 21st century?”

He was quoting part of the stated purpose of the Church of Christ, Scientist – to reinstate such Christianity and its healing works (see Mary Baker Eddy, “Manual of The Mother Church,” p. 17).

Christian Science reveals that the message Jesus shared with humanity has a spiritual meaning, which I’ve found it most helpful to consider. It opens a practical way to find more health, peace, and solutions in our lives. Mary Baker Eddy is the Christian pioneer who, in her discovery and founding of Christian Science, rolled up her sleeves to follow in the trail blazed by Jesus, showing the world that Christian healing as demonstrated by Jesus is possible, even today.

So what is Jesus’ message? His message speaks of God. And what a contrast with other beliefs about gods common during his time. The God portrayed by Jesus is Spirit and Truth. This God includes nothing material. And as God’s creation, expressing Spirit and Truth, each of us is entirely spiritual.

Have you ever felt the kind of selfless love (through the actions of a loved one or a friend) that floods your day with light? Such love is very real, very tangible, but has nothing to do with materiality. Similarly, Spirit has nothing to do with materiality. Spirit is substance, infinitely so; but this substance is not material.

To speak of God as Truth is to speak of a universal spiritual reality that unites us because it is the same for everyone.

The essence of Jesus’ sublime message is to make us understand better our relation to the supreme source of goodness and life, to God. And Jesus’ teachings even include the specific affirmation that anyone who understands what he knew can heal as he did (see John 14:12). We can actually prove our true, spiritual nature as the expression of infinite good, of God, in our daily lives.

A few years ago, I was involved in a serious scooter accident. I was immediately taken to the emergency room, and while I’d been wearing a helmet, the doctor feared traumatic brain injury. When I was discharged from the hospital, I was asked to watch for any abnormalities related to my head in the coming weeks. A few days later, my father noticed I was having memory lapses. I would often ask him the same question several times in the space of a few minutes.

Instead of going back to the doctor for additional exams, I decided to rely on prayer. Many healings of difficult situations I’d already experienced through Christian Science made me comfortable with making this choice.

In our prayers, my parents and I affirmed it is always God that heals. We also affirmed that what presented itself as a serious problem was in fact a misperception of my real, spiritual nature – my whole, pure, perfect existence as God’s offspring. The source of all true being, God, does not cause disease or suffering. On the contrary, as we become more aware of our unity with this divine source of all good, this change in consciousness manifests itself as a change in the body, which becomes more harmonious, reflecting this spiritual unity.

It was also important for me to grasp the idea that intelligence is not created by a biochemical reaction in the brain. Rather, it originates in the limitless divine consciousness, infinite Mind, God, which is expressed by each of us. This intelligence, including clarity of consciousness, can no more be cut off than a shooting star could be stopped with bows and arrows.

This way of praying not only brought great inner peace, but also the certainty that everything was in order. And indeed, after a few days, the episodes of memory loss had completely stopped. A few months later, I started my second year of law school, which involved memorizing a substantial number of court decisions, which I was able to do without any difficulty. The problem never returned. Deep study of the Bible and the writings of Mary Baker Eddy, coupled with prayer that humbly acknowledges our unity with infinite good, continues to bring me unspeakable benefits.

Jesus’ magnificent spirituality is not a theoretical conceptual construct that belongs to the past, but quite the opposite. It is a spiritual Science, demonstrable by you and me, today. “Primitive Christianity,” exempt from hierarchy and ritual, heals disease of all kinds by bringing us an exceptional sense of our unity with the infinite, God. It’s for right now!

Adapted from an article published on the website of The Herald of Christian Science, French Edition, Dec. 28, 2020.

Viewfinder

Candlelight concert

Denis Balibouse/Reuters
Illuminated by hundreds of candles, French pianist Eric Artz performs Japanese animated theme songs during the Candlelight series in Les Salons in Geneva, Switzerland, on May 19, 2021.
( The illustrations in today’s Monitor Daily are by Jacob Turcotte. )

A look ahead

Thanks for reading the Daily today. Please join us again tomorrow, when Scott Peterson will explore why the Taliban still exert such a pull in Afghanistan, given their grim past rule.

More issues

2021
May
20
Thursday

Give us your feedback

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.