Sunday, August 13, 2017

Resist the Roaring Lion

The images coming across my computer and television screens this weekend are simply horrifying.  I would never have imagined that at this point in our nation’s history, with the gains that we saw from the Civil Rights movement of the 60s and 70s, after an African American president served our country brilliantly and effectively for eight years, that we would retreat back to the dark days of our racist past.  And yet, there it was. A band of angry white men marching in our public streets, wielding clubs and screaming racist and Anti Semitic epithets and slurs, braced for violent conflict. And violent conflict is what transpired, as peaceful counter-protesters were mowed down by a white supremacist terrorist using a car as a weapon.  Apparently, our racist past continues to be our racist present.

I am an Episcopal priest, steeped in the liturgical language of my tradition, and the images I saw coming out of Charlottesville this weekend brought to mind a reading from 1 Peter that is part of our night prayer service, Compline:  “Be sober, be watchful.  Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.  Resist him, firm in your faith.” (1 Peter 5:8-9a)  The roaring lion of racism is still all too alive and well in our country, prowling through our body politic seeking someone to devour.  Untold numbers of African American men and women are devoured by it every day, and it is only a matter of time before all of us will be food for that roaring lion.

I struggle with these sickening events, drawing upon my Christian faith for the wisdom I so desperately seek to navigate these critical times.  I also draw strength from my interfaith colleagues, friends, neighbors and students – Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, Sikhs, Bahai, Evangelical and Mainline Protestant Christians, Roman Catholics and many sincere and concerned “spiritual but not religious” people who care about the future of our nation and our planet. The Interfaith Chapel at the University of Rochester is committed to creating a place and space for people of all different creeds, nationalities, religions, races, and ethnicities to come together to learn about and from one another and to create a safe and welcoming space where students, faculty and staff can grow and learn.  The events in Charlottesville this weekend are the antithesis of the values we hold dear as we work constantly to build bridges, promote understanding and cooperation, and foster friendship across all lines of difference. 

All of the wisdom traditions of the world’s religions call us to be compassionate, merciful and loving in our approach to the “others” we meet on our life’s journey.  The various religious traditions may use different terms for it, but all agree that racism and violence constitute what we Christians call “sin.” And all religious traditions call us to overcome our own ego centeredness and move towards an approach to the world that is “other directed” and that acknowledges that we are all connected.  We will flourish or perish together.  Those who seek to divide and alienate us one from the other are steering us toward our common destruction.  The roaring lion will devour us all if we do not resist.

Next week the University of Rochester will welcome the Class of 2021.  In that class, international students make up 32.5% of the whole, and minority students are 18.4% of the total.  We intend to make these students feel safe and welcome on our campus, and in our country.  We want our international students to know that Charlottesville does not define America, although it certainly represents a deep and dark shadow of our national psyche.  We want our African American students to feel confident that what happened in Charlottesville will not be tolerated on our campus or in our community.  As an interfaith community we stand together to protect those who are vulnerable in this volatile and hostile time in our nation’s history.   We will not be silent when the roaring lion seeks someone to devour.   In our various faith traditions, we will stand firm, and resist any form of hate speech or violence.  We will continue our mission to work diligently to create a community that embraces and welcomes all. 

Thursday, June 16, 2016

We Need to Talk....

I have taken a few days to reflect on the latest tragedy that struck in Orlando, Florida early Sunday morning, June 12.  When I first heard about the shooting I was, like everyone else, stunned, yet weary and dismayed that yet again, a mass shooting has hit our country, once again people going about their ordinary lives, doing ordinary things suddenly find themselves victims of a shooter who was able to easily get his hands on an assault weapon which he used to kill 49 and injure 53 innocent people.  This shooting is just one in long litany of shootings that we have endured in recent years in this country. This time is was the LGBTQIA community that was targeted, although that community is now in good company with small children, African American Christians engaged in Bible Study, office workers enjoying a holiday party, ordinary citizens attending a movie or going to the mall.  No one is exempt from this insanity.

In the torrent of commentaries and blog posts and essays that are being written this week, many aspects of this complex event are being discussed.  The need for more serious gun control in the United States to include a complete ban on assault weapons, the dangers of “Islamic extremism,” homophobia, Islamophobia, xenophobia, racism, the climate of hate and bigotry that permeates our society right now, the violence and ugliness that our current presidential campaign has both fostered and nurtured. The more I reflect on this the more I see this particular shooting as a “perfect storm,” the coming together of so many strands of our collective fears and prejudices, blind spots and weaknesses, corruption and complacency.  As our friends in the Eastern world religious traditions would say, karma is at work here.  We reap what we sew and if we sew hatred, bigotry, fear of anyone or anything that is “different”, and if we allow and even promote a culture of violence, we should not be surprised when this kind of violence continues to occur.

From what we know now, it appears this gunman was an American born Muslim and someone who likely suffered from some mental illness and emotional issues.  His numerous visits to the very nightclub that he chose as his target suggests that he might have been wrestling with issues about his own sexuality, resulting in this violent expression of his own internalized homophobia.  In part his Muslim religious tradition would not have helped him, if he was trying to reconcile homosexual tendencies with his religious and ethnic tradition.  However homophobia is rampant in our culture and is often expressed in strident ways by all kinds of “religious people” including many vocal Christian denominations, so I caution us not to blame Muslims or Islam for that aspect of this tragedy.   In addition, being a Muslim in America means this man has had to live under the shadow of the increasing Islamophobia of this nation for most of the last 15 years, which Islamophobia has only increased during this most recent election cycle.  The hateful rhetoric in this presidential campaign directed at Mexicans and Hispanic immigrants who make up a significant portion of the population in this country, may well have made Mr. Mateen even more inclined to hit the nightclub on its Latinx night.   Lots of strands of hatred and bigotry and intolerance converged in this particular act of violence.

It is quite likely that this gunman was mentally ill.  But to dismiss this as the act of a deranged person, is to ignore the reality that we are all responsible for the cultural soup in which our mentally ill citizens swim.  Those who are mentally ill are often keenly tuned into the emotional atmosphere around them.  They absorb the emotional vibrations that permeate our communities and, because of their mental illness, they are the ones most likely to express what so many others keep in check.  Mental illness reduces their inhibitions and destroys their boundaries, and so they act out. When they do so, they are carrying much of the emotional baggage that all of us as a society are putting out there.  We cannot excuse ourselves from culpability or simply dismiss these acts of violence as “lone wolf” isolated occurrences perpetrated by someone who is mentally unbalanced.  We are all implicated in the society we have created. We all have a share in the emotional and spiritual imbalance in our culture and we need to own it and address it.

For those of us who work in the interfaith movement, there are so many ways we can and will respond to this tragedy.  As interfaith activists and dialogue partners we will likely rally together, across our traditions to address many of the issues that this tragedy brings into focus:  racism, bigotry, xenophobia, Islamophobia, the need for gun control laws that have some teeth in them, lessening the violence in speech and action that has become the hallmark of our current culture and the way we talk to and about one another. Those are all issues that we can easily coalesce around and for which we can, with relative ease, find spiritual and/or religious authority for our activism within our particular religious traditions. 

But Orlando pushes us a little further as interfaith people.  Now, we must stop tip-toeing around the issues of human sexuality, which we have mostly avoided talking about as interfaith dialogue partners because those issues are not issues upon which we all agree.  Now is the time to be courageous and begin genuine interfaith (and intrafaith) conversations about human sexuality.  The Mainline Protestant Christian traditions, the Reformed, Conservative and Reconstructionist Jewish movements, and many Western Buddhist groups have done a lot of work on these issues in recent decades and we have wisdom to share with our brothers and sisters in other religious traditions that have not yet waded into these waters.  If we want to prevent future Omar Mateens from cracking under the psychic pressure of self-loathing, we must change our religious and spiritual discourse about human sexuality and our treatment of people who do not conform to the cisgender, heterosexual norm. 

It is time for us in the interfaith community to create safe spaces for these conversations, recognizing that our Muslim brothers and sisters are already bearing an enormous burden as they contend, daily, with living in a culture that eyes them with suspicion at best, and at worst, outright hatred. For our Muslim dialogue partners the fear of the conflict and pain that such conversations might bring within their own community is likely a deterrent to having those conversations, particularly in the climate in which Muslims must now live and practice their faith. And for members of other world religious traditions that have yet to confront the LGBTQIA issues, simply being a minority or immigrant religion in America is enough to make it difficult for them to embark on these kinds of conversations. The religious traditions and denominations that have already worked through these issues had the relative luxury of doing so from their positions of religious privilege in our culture.

To foster these tender discussions, all of us in the interfaith community need to create a place where these conversations can be held safely, and with trust, kindness, compassion and a genuine willingness to listen and learn.  The demonization, name-calling, and hateful rhetoric of our current public discourse is not consistent with the teachings of any of our religious traditions.   Now is the time for us to model an entirely different way of approaching difference and diversity based upon our respective wisdom traditions.  As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has said so beautifully, “The challenge to the religious imagination is to see God’s image in the one who is not in our imageThe critical test of any order is: does it make space for otherness?  Does it acknowledge the dignity of difference?” (p. 60-61, Dignity of Difference)

Orlando brings home to us that none of us is an island.  No religion, race, ethnicity, nationality, sex or gender identity exists in isolation.   What hurts one segment of the human family hurts us all.  We are all in this together, and we will flourish or we will perish in large measure according to the degree of our willingness to embrace those who are not just like us and to see the face of God in those who’s faces do not look like ours.   Interfaith dialogue partners, we need to talk.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

The Deadly Poison of Trump's Unhinged Tongue

Dickens’ famous line “it was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of  wisdom, it was the age of foolishness” certainly rings true this week.  As citizens of a nation founded on the principles of freedom of speech and freedom of religion, we find ourselves in the vortex of an election season in which a candidate for the highest office in our land exercises his right of “free speech” in a hateful, bigoted, racist manner that is offensive to millions of people in this country and abroad.  Donald Trump’s call for a ban on Muslim immigration to the United States has left many of us completely breathless and virtually speechless, so completely horrific and unthinkable is the notion of a religious test for entry to this country. 

Those of us who dedicate much of our lives to interfaith dialogue and cooperation join the throng of politicians, citizens, and religious leaders the world over in the chorus of condemnation of Trump’s words.  As a Christian religious leader, I thought immediately of the words in the Christian New Testament, in the letter of James, wherein the writer warns of the dangers of the human tongue.  “And the tongue is a fire….no one can tame the tongue- a restless evil, full of deadly poison.  With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God.  From the same mouth come blessing and cursing.  My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so.”  (James 3:6, 8-10)  The letter of James was likely written in the late first century of Common Era.  Not much has changed in the ensuing twenty centuries it would seem. 

In this season of hateful, xenophobic, racist rhetoric, Americans of all faiths and of no faith must proclaim and embrace the principles on which this nation was founded.  Our first amendment liberties, including free speech and the freedom to exercise our religion are the jewels in the crown of our democracy.  Mr. Trump, in the guise of “telling it like it is” is desecrating the very foundation of our American values, not to mention of the values of all of the world’s religions.  Mr. Trump’s first amendment right to free speech means he can say the ridiculous things he’s been saying, but basic human decency, not to mention a modicum of good manners, would recommend a more nuanced approach.  Mr. Trump makes me embarrassed to be an American.  On the college campus where I serve are students from many countries of the world, and of many races, religions, and ethnicities, including Muslim students, faculty and staff, some born here, some immigrants, some guests in our country while they pursue their education.  I am mortified that they have to be subjected to this hateful rhetoric and the climate of fear and mistrust that this discourse creates.  Mr. Trump’s words are indecent, inhumane and unworthy of any public figure, most particularly one who fancies himself qualified to lead the nation.  His words are also unworthy of anyone who purports to call themselves a Christian, which I believe, if asked, Mr. Trump would do, at least if he thought it expedient in his pursuit of public office. 

Earlier this semester I travelled with eight of our students to the Parliament of the World’s Religions, which convened in Salt Lake City, Utah in October.  For five days we were privileged to be among people from eighty countries and fifty different religious traditions all of whom gathered to share with one another the work they are doing all over the world to promote religious harmony, cooperation, and respect and to bring peace to a world wracked with violence and war.  It is a shame that this gathering did not garner the same degree of media attention that the actions of ISIS or the words of demagogues like Mr. Trump always manage to attract.  It is time that the story of interfaith understanding and cooperation, a story unfolding in the United States and in countries all over the globe, be proclaimed with as much intensity as is the unending narrative of conflict, hate and fear.  Peaceful, respectful, life giving interfaith encounter and cooperation is happening all over the world, in churches, mosques, synagogues, temples, gurudwaras, in small villages and big cities, on college campuses and in countless local venues.  A new future is being birthed in those places and that is the story the media should be telling. 

Mr. Trump does not represent the breath of fresh air, nor the “change” that he and his supporters claim people want and need in our national life.  Quite the opposite. His is the old, tired, negative, destructive narrative of fear, hate, bigotry and “othering” that has generated centuries of wars and conflicts.  The real hope for the future of humanity lies with the young people I am privileged to work with and serve, and the mentors who walk with them, those who are dedicating themselves to creating a future in which racism, xenophobia, Islamophobia, Anti-Semitism, sexism, homophobia and all other kinds of phobias and “isms” become a thing of the past.

  At the University of Rochester Interfaith Chapel, we affirm and celebrate the religious diversity of our student body, our nation and of the world.  We are a cooperation circle within the United Religions Initiative, dedicated to promoting enduring, daily interfaith cooperation, to ending religiously motivated violence and to creating cultures of peace, justice and healing for the Earth and all living beings. And in these dark days of December 2015 we stand in solidarity with our Muslim students, faculty and staff, and the Muslim community here in Rochester who are our valued and respected neighbors, as they weather the storm of hate and bigotry perpetrated by the likes of Mr. Trump.   We will continue our mission to foster interfaith understanding and cooperation and to create a world where no person of any religious or spiritual tradition need live in fear.   

Monday, August 4, 2014

Committed Interfaith Relationships: Fidelity, Trust, Endurance

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”  If ever there was a time when Dickens’ words ring true for me, they do so this summer.  I have spent much of the summer involved in interfaith dialogue in Istanbul, Turkey and in Morocco, as part of two different interfaith conferences and symposia. I reveled in the relationship building and sense of adventure that is so much a part of interfaith engagement, cherishing my encounter with the holy as experienced by my Muslim dialogue partners and hosts. I also watched in horror as violence, much of it fueled by religiously motivated intolerance and hatred, erupted in Iraq, where Christians had to flee for their lives under threat of violence by ISIS, and as the tensions between Israel and Gaza exploded once again into armed conflict.  On the one hand, I experienced first hand the reality that it is possible to build bridges of understanding and respect between people of different religious and cultural traditions, even as I watched, yet again, the extent to which religiously motivated violence and intolerance continues to claim the lives of altogether too many innocent men, women and children. 

Is interfaith dialogue relevant in a world where religiously motivated violence continues to roil entire geographic and political regions, leaving thousands of people maimed and murdered?  Does the global interfaith movement have anything to offer to a world still so captivated by political and often violent approaches to religious, ethnic and cultural difference?  I believe the answer to those questions is a resounding Yes. And I believe that all of us who are committed to interfaith dialogue in its broadest expression must be intentional about remaining in relationship and conversation with our dialogue partners of different religious traditions even when our perceptions of and opinions about what is happening in the global trouble spots are widely divergent.  We will not become agents of change and peacemaking anywhere in the world, if we cannot create and maintain peace with those who live in our own city, neighborhood, workplace or school. In the midst of conflict and struggle we cannot yield to our instinctual "flight or fight" response.   We must honor our interfaith relationships by continuing to trust and to endure the pain of our differences.

Interfaith dialogue is all about building committed relationships, friendships that can endure the tensions of troubled times.  It is all about making friends out of strangers.  Interfaith encounter is not about debating who is right and who is wrong, who is “in” and who is “out” or who is enlightened and who is backward.  Interfaith encounter is about forming relationships with people who have a different worldview, a different religious or spiritual or philosophical approach to our common human experience. Interfaith encounter is about learning the different narratives that inform how our dialogue partners apprehend the world and taking the time and effort to try to look through their lens, even if only briefly. Interfaith dialogue makes it possible to empathize with those who are embroiled in the worst of the conflicts that are erupting around the world.  Empathy helps us to remember the humanity of those with whom we disagree and helps to prevent them from becoming “enemies” whom we can justify demonizing and eradicating.

This summer, I enjoyed the gracious hospitality of Muslims in Turkey and in Morocco. I experienced the profound spiritual discipline and the joy that is part of the holy month of Ramadan. I observed prayer in mosques and in homes, I participated in iftar meals in community centers and private homes, I visited holy sites, both Christian and Muslim in both countries.  I experienced first hand the reality that Muslims and Christians can and do co-exist respectfully and peacefully in many places in the world, forming deep and abiding relationships of friendship and trust.

I returned from Morocco through Amsterdam, where I visited the Amsterdam museum and saw an exhibit about Dutch converts to Islam and how these communities of Dutch Muslims are impacting that very secular, yet nominally Christian European country.  I also visited the Anne Frank house and the Jewish quarter where the history of the Jews in the Netherlands, particularly during the years of Nazi occupation, are described in horrifying detail.  I visited “Our Lord in the Attic” church, a Roman Catholic church built on the third floor and attic of a large stately home of a 17th century Dutch merchant at a time in history when Roman Catholic churches were outlawed in the Netherlands and Roman Catholics had to worship secretly in what had become a stridently Protestant nation.  I observed with dismay the extent to which the conflict in Israel and Gaza is igniting a resurgence of anti-Semitism in Europe as people ascribe to all Jews Israel’s political and military actions.  I heard many narratives: narratives of pain and persecution, narratives of conquest and defeat, narratives of tolerance and acceptance and cooperation, narratives of war and narratives of peace.   Interfaith encounter opens us to all these narratives and asks us to accept that all of these stories are true even where they appear to conflict.

So now I return to Rochester and to the work of interfaith encounter right here in our city and on the University of Rochester campus.  We have a lively and committed interfaith community in Rochester. The University of Rochester has an active and growing interfaith student group that includes students from all of our diverse religious communities at the Interfaith Chapel and students who claim no religious affiliation.  The Interfaith Chapel is a Cooperation Circle of the United Religions Initiative (URI), a global grass roots network of interfaith organizations committed to building bridges of understanding between and among the world’s religious and philosophical traditions.  The purpose of the URI is to promote enduring, daily interfaith cooperation, to end religiously motivated violence and to create cultures of peace, justice and healing for the Earth and all living beings, a purpose that is completely consonant with the mission of the Interfaith Chapel.

I read articles and posts to the URI listserve daily from Cooperation Circles all over the world, including in Israel and Palestine and Baghdad.  Grass roots interfaith work is happening right in the midst of these violent conflicts, as local organizations in those troubled regions come together to explore non-violent solutions to their troubles.  The stories of interfaith prayer vigils and interfaith activism for peace and non-violence don’t make the mainstream media, but all over the world, including in the places wracked with the most violent conflict, people are working together to try to find peaceful and just solutions and to end the violence.  To honor their work, we who are fortunate enough to live in places of relative safety must remain committed to the interfaith work that we are doing here in our own back yard and to continue to strengthen the relationships we have created through those efforts.  Global conflicts have local repercussions.  Our challenge is to create a local environment that does not replicate the conflict happening on the other side of the world.  Violence can spread like a cancer and we must not allow hatred and mistrust and demonizing of the “other” to metastasize to our local community. I am reminded of the words of St. Paul, from my own Christian tradition, that one part of the body cannot say to the other, “I have no need of you.”  All the parts must work together in order for the whole to be healthy.

Interfaith work is not always “kum-bah-yah” as this summer’s global violence reminds us yet again.   It is hard work to remain faithful to relationships with those who feel differently and strongly about these seemingly irreconcilable conflicts, but that commitment and fidelity to the relationship is the bedrock on which interfaith dialogue is built.  By remaining in relationship with one another we make it possible for all of us to be transformed and, if we are creative and open-hearted, perhaps even discover a pathway to peace.  The prayer I carry with me this summer is a text from my own Christian tradition – “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.” 

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Dignity of Difference: Interfaith Learning in Rochester

For those interested in interfaith dialogue and learning, June is a banner month here in Rochester, New York.  On Sunday, June 2 at the RIT Inn and Conference Center, a community sponsored interfaith conference entitled “Dignity of Difference: A Day of Interfaith Learning” will take place from 1:00-5:15.  The conference is free and open to the public, although advance registration is encouraged.  The conference registration can be completed online at This conference will feature a keynote address by Gustav Niebuhr, associate professor of newspaper and online journalism in the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University and author of the book Beyond Tolerance: Searching for Interfaith Understanding in America. There will be two one hour class sessions following the keynote address during which time participants may choose from a broad array of topics ranging from basic introductions to the major world religions to more advanced seminars in particular religions or experiential sessions such as Zen Buddhist Meditation and Sufi Chanting.  Prof. Niebuhr will facilitate the closing session at the end of the afternoon of learning. 

This conference seeks to offer participants the opportunity to learn about religions other than their own and to meet and talk with people who practice those religions.  The conference focuses on how and where the different religious traditions are alike and where they are different, with the intent that participants will come to value the differences between religious traditions rather than fear them.  Often people think that interfaith dialogue is all about finding the least common denominator, or somehow, watering down the rich religious traditions of the world so that they are acceptable to all.  At this conference, students will learn how to recognize, respect and celebrate the differences that exist between the world’s religions and to see those differences as sources of wisdom.  They will also have the opportunity to meet people from other religious traditions with whom they might then make connections beyond this conference.  Many faith communities in Rochester are sponsoring this conference including the Jewish Federation, with a grant from the Farash Foundation, the Episcopal Diocese of Rochester, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Rochester, the Faith in Action Network, the Sikh Gurdwara of Rochester, the Islamic Center of Rochester, and the Latter Day Saints Community, Rochester and Palmyra Stakes.  If you are in the Rochester area come join us this Sunday afternoon for an exciting interfaith encounter!

Then, from June 23-25, 2013 at the Hickey Center for Interfaith Studies and Dialogue, an academic interfaith conference “Sacred Texts in Human Contexts: A Symposium on the Role of Sacred Texts of Judaism, Christianity and Islam in Uniting and Dividing Humanity” will take place at Nazareth College.  Scholars from all over the country and internationally will present papers on a broad variety of subjects with the focus on how the sacred texts of the three Abrahamic traditions have served to unite and to divide humankind throughout history and in the contemporary context.   Prof. Elaine Pagels, of Princeton University is scheduled to be the keynote speaker at this conference.    Many local colleges and universities are co-sponsoring this conference, including the Department of Religion and Classics here at the University of Rochester.   Registration for this conference can be done online at

Rochester has long been a center for interfaith encounter and dialogue, with a rich and vibrant interfaith community that is constantly engaged in dialogue and community action together on a variety of issues and topics. These two conferences are examples of the energy and the commitment to interfaith dialogue of the many faith communities that make up this city.  As a community we know that we are stronger and better able to work together for the common good when we forge and maintain interfaith relationships.  People in all of our diverse faith communities are privileged to be able to practice their particular religious tradition in the pluralistic context of this city where they can grow and deepen their own faith as they learn about the faiths of others.  Interfaith dialogue is absolutely essential in the global community in which we all now live.  The great religions of the world can be sources of wisdom and agents of peacemaking when their adherents take the time to learn about their own religious tradition and the other traditions that make up their community and neighborhood.   I invite all of you in the Rochester area to take advantage of these unique opportunities for religious and spiritual growth.  Come make some new friends and join a worldwide movement for interfaith understanding and cooperation!

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Praying in the Midst of Rubble

Yesterday we Rochesterians were enjoying our first warm spring day after a long and brutally cold winter season.  Here at the University of Rochester campus, the students were out all over the quad, sporting tank tops, shorts and sandals and reveling in the warm air and the sunshine.  Then, shortly after 3:00 we began to hear reports about the Boston bombing. Students from the Boston area were checking cell phones and texting friends and relatives back home to make sure they were all right.  Everyone was riveted to Facebook and Twitter feeds and news outlets as the reports of yet another act of senseless violence shattered our sense of normalcy and calm on a balmy April afternoon.  I found myself wondering where is it safe to go in this country anymore?  School?  Movie theaters?  Places of worship?  Political rallies or events?  A marathon?? A mall? In the past year all of those places have been scenes of violence and destruction as deranged shooters, and now a yet-unknown bomber, slay countless innocent people for no apparent reason.  I watched with a weary heart as the scenes of the explosions were shown over and over again on television news coverage, scenes of smoke and debris and blood and human beings crying out in pain and anguish, as their world is literally shattered.  One image particularly caught me up short.  It was a photograph of a woman, on her knees, hands clasped together, face turned upwards, praying, right there in the midst of the crowds and debris, as first responders and medics helped victims and people in the crowd searched frantically for loved ones and runners finished the race and looked for their families.  Quietly, tearfully and faithfully she offered prayers, lips moving as she poured out her anguish and grief, her pleas for help and solace to God as destruction reigned around her. 

Prayer is something people of faith do.   For many of us, it is as natural as breathing.  For those of us who engage in interfaith dialogue, prayer is something we know all our friends of whatever faith tradition share, even though we use different postures and different words.  In moments of crisis the human impulse to cry out to the divine simply erupts in all languages, as we seek to find the strength to carry on in the midst of suffering and to offer solace to those who are in pain and those who grieve.  At our interfaith chapel staff meeting today, the rabbi whose turn it was to open the meeting with prayer, led us in praying a psalm of lament and Psalm 23, the famous psalm of comfort for those who grieve.  I was aware of prayers being offered at places of worship in all traditions all over the city and the country as everyone took in the horror and the grief of this tragedy and came together in solidarity with those who were injured and killed through the universal language of prayer.  In mosques, gurdwaras, temples, synagogues, churches and homes people of all different faith traditions are offering prayers. 

Some would ask, so what?  Do the prayers bring back the dead?  Do they heal the suffering?  Those of us who are religious and/or spiritual believe that prayer does make a difference.  While it may or may not change the outcome of a human tragedy, it changes the heart of the pray-er.  And in the midst of the violence that afflicts our culture today, changing hearts is one of the most important things we can do to move towards forgiveness and reconciliation and away from vengeance and a thirst for revenge.  Prayer makes space in the human heart for compassion.  As all spiritual and religious traditions have known through the ages, it takes peace deep within the human heart to make peace possible in the world.

So as we go through yet another week of waiting and speculating and wondering about who did this violent act and why, I join with my brothers and sisters of all the world’s faith traditions in a commitment to sustained and sincere prayer.  Prayer for those who died, for those who are fighting for their lives, for those whose lives are forever changed due to injury and loss, for those who are conducting the investigation and those who are emotionally wounded from the pain and horror they witnessed at the scene of the carnage.  Prayers for all of us that we might rise above anger and vengeance, blame and shame, and remember our common humanity. When the “perpetrator” is finally found, may we seek justice with mercy so that slowly but surely we can build a world founded on the kind of inner peace that may help to reduce the violence that so mars our world.  I take comfort in knowing that all across this land prayers are being offered in Arabic, Hebrew, Sanskrit, Hindi, Punjabi, Spanish, French, Russian, Greek, Chinese, Japanese and myriad other languages to the divine whom we all address by different names lifting up before the Holy One those who have been affected by this most recent tragedy while simultaneously working on the hearts of all of us pray-ers as we open ourselves to the compassion of the divine heart.  Amen. 

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

From Survivor to Thriver - Combatting Sexual Assault on Campuses

The Spirituality of Recovery – From Survivor to Thriver
University of Rochester
 April 3, 2013

At a conference held on April 3 at the University of Rochester, I was asked to speak about the Spirituality of Recovery. I offer here a condensed version of my presentation at that conference. Sexual assault on college campuses is a serious issue confronting all of us who work in higher education today.  I offer here some reflections on the spiritual consequences of sexual assault and the spiritual issues that need to be addressed within college communities as they deal with incidents of sexual assault.   This is a hard topic for all religious traditions to confront, and yet there is much spiritual and religious wisdom that can be brought to the issues arising out of sexual assault that can promote healing and renewal both for victims and for their assailants.

Fundamentally I believe that there is a deep connection between spirituality and sexuality, which means that sexual assault is more than an assault on the body and emotions, it is also an assault on the soul.  Spiritual practices and spiritual and religious mentors and counselors can offer much wisdom to students who have been victims of sexual assault and can also offer much needed spiritual care to those who have perpetrated the assaults.

Sexual Assault is not About Sex

First let me make it clear that sexual assault is not about sex.  When someone is the victim of a sexual assault, the act that takes place between the people involved is not about sex, it is not about intimacy and connection and love and trust, it is about violence and power and intimidation.   The sex organs of the human body are merely the tools used to inflict violence and pain and suffering on the victim.  The assault is not about sex, but in order for the victim to heal, spiritual and/or religious rituals or practices may be needed to bring the victim back to wholeness because healthy sexuality is intertwined with spirituality.  And for complete healing to happen in the community, to the extent possible the perpetrator needs to be held accountable and to have spiritual resources available to him to bring him to a place where he can reclaim his dignity and his wholeness and make restitution for the harm he has caused to the community. 

Sexuality and Spirituality

I approach this topic with a strong conviction that human sexuality and spirituality are intricately connected components of human experience.  In the best of circumstances, sexuality and spirituality work together in the life of a human being and offer windows onto the transcendent divine in ways that bring joy and fulfillment to human life.

George Feuerstein, in his book Sacred Sexuality traces the connection between human sexual expression and spirituality from ancient indigenous religions of the Goddess through the major world religions that we know today From our earliest records of human religious experiences, it is clear that sexual energy and spiritual experience have been long intertwined.  Feuerstein writes:

Sex- or to be more precise, sexual love- can be a hidden window onto the spiritual reality.  That window or opening can manifest all of a sudden in the solid walls of our conventional existence.  At the height of passion or in the fullness of love, we might suddenly feel transported to a different plane of existence where all our sensations, experiences and thoughts occur against the peaceful backdrop of an overriding sense of at-one-ness. (39) …..

This truth has been obscured by our inherited dualistic philosophies, but it is a truth that is fundamental to the sacred traditions inspired by mystics and sages before they were reworked by theologians and intellectuals.   Prior to the rise of dualism, the sacred and profane were not experienced as radical opposites, nor was sexuality excluded from spiritual life.   On the contrary, the further back we go in human history the more we encounter a life philosophy that was distinctly affirmative of both sex and God or Goddess. (41)

 It is no accident that through the ages, people who have spent long hours in prayer and meditation and who have nurtured a lively and dynamic relationship with the divine have experienced that relationship in ways they can only describe as erotic. The good news in this literature is that the experience of transcendence, boundarylessness, ecstasy and joy that the mystics describe is also available to us ordinary people in the context of our healthy, loving sexual relationships.

If one understands the deep connection between human sexuality and spirituality, it becomes clearer how and why a sexual assault is also a spiritual assault.  Sex is sacred and when the parts of our bodies that engage in sex are violated, spiritual damage is done to the soul.  A sexual assault is the equivalent of the desecration of a holy site, and just as churches, mosques and temples that have been desecrated often require special rituals and prayers to re-consecrate the space for its holy purpose, people who have been so violated by a sexual assault need spiritual rituals and support to “reconsecrate” their sexual lives in a healthy and positive way.

Spiritual Consequences of Sexual Assault

The primary spiritual consequences of sexual assault are feelings of guilt, shame, anger or rage, depression, and a struggle to deal with the religious imperative to forgive when forgiveness seems elusive or downright impossible. 

Much has been written in the past several decades about the phenomenon of guilt among survivors of rape.  In part these guilty feelings arise from our culture’s propensity to “blame the victim” by asserting that she somehow “asked for it” either by the way she was dressed, or the way she behaved towards the perpetrator, or by getting drunk or high on drugs so that she was incapable of resisting the attack and also incapable of consenting to the sexual activity. 

Shame is another common feeling among those who have been victims of sexual assault.  Shame can be even more debilitating than guilt since shame tends to be rooted in feelings about the person’s very selfhood and is not usually specifically related to just one act of omission or commission.  Thus, a person who feels shame as a result of a sexual assault feels worthless as a person, or somehow sullied or dirtied or inadequate.  These feelings can obviously have far reaching consequences for the person’s continued growth and development both psychologically and spiritually.  Appropriate spiritual care is imperative to help victims transform their feelings of shame into feelings of self worth and empowerment.

A very important part of healing from a trauma such as sexual assault is forgiveness.  The victim at some point must be able to forgive the perpetrator in order to move on with his or her own life.  There are a lot of misconceptions about what constitutes forgiveness and how and when someone should engage in it.  Well-trained religious leaders can help victims to work through their feelings and work towards genuine forgiveness in ways that can empower the victim to move on in a healthy way but without rushing the forgiveness process.

Spiritual Care of Perpetrators

The perpetrators of sexual assault also need spiritual care, in addition to  psychological and psychiatric care.   The act of sexual assault can create feelings of guilt and shame in the perpetrator.  In our desire to see justice done, we must also remember that the perpetrator needs spiritual counsel and help to deal with his guilt and shame and to help him to do whatever acts of repentance, restitution and making amends might be appropriate under the circumstances.  The spiritual task is to walk with the perpetrator as he experiences the suffering that inevitably comes from having caused the kind of harm he has caused and from the natural consequences, legal and otherwise, of that harm.

In some cases, restorative justice practices might be appropriate and helpful.  However, not all offenders will be suitable candidates for such practices.  In cases where a perpetrator is repentant and remorseful, is capable of empathy and willing to subject himself to the restorative justice process, a restorative approach can heal both the victim and the perpetrator and strengthen the community at the same time.  A restorative approach focuses on healing broken relationships and restoring a sense of community, something very important in a university setting. We are fortunate to have resources at the University of Rochester through our Gandhi Institute that can offer a restorative justice approach when circumstances suggest it is appropriate to do so.

So, for this campus community I would urge that spiritual and religious interventions be considered when dealing with students who have suffered from sexual assault.  The Interfaith Chapel is available to work with such students and to refer them to appropriate religious mentors as needed.  As numerous studies have shown, religious and/or spiritual intervention can have remarkably positive effects on a victim’s recovery, but equally, the wrong kind of spiritual counsel can simply compound the problems and increase the suffering so care must be taken to be sure the person is referred to a religious counselor who is trained to deal with victims of sexual assault and abuse. 

The Interfaith Chapel is similarly ready to be a spiritual and religious resource for those working with perpetrators of sexual assault, to help them to accept responsibility for what they have done and to transform their lives in positive ways, restoring them to community and helping them to find ways of healing from the harm they have caused to others and to themselves.

Healthy university communities must take sexual assault seriously and ensure that all resources are brought to bear when a sexual assault takes place.  The community’s health is at stake, not just the health and well being of the assailant and the victim.  We are all in this together and together we must work to make our campus safe for all of our students all of the time.