Saturday, December 15, 2012

Advent Sermon on Newtown Tragedy

As I was going to prepare a blog for this week, the tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut unfolded.  My response to that event is expressed in the sermon I will preach to my Episcopal congregation tomorrow morning.  While I usually reserve this blog for "interfaith" oriented conversations, I offer it here as the reflection of one Episcopal priest on the tragedy that has beset us all this week.  Many of the sentiments I express here were part of my August blog about gun control, an issue around which I believe the interfaith community can and should rally.

“The Chaff is Burning – Quench the Fire!”, A Sermon preached by The Rev. Canon Dr. C. Denise Yarbrough on Sunday, December 16, 2012 at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, Bloomfield, NY

“You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.” (Luke 3: 7-8)

So here we are on the third Sunday in Advent, listening to John the Baptist deliver an impassioned sermon to crowds on the banks of the River Jordan, just two days after yet another horrific mass shooting took the lives of 28 people, 20 of them elementary school children who had done nothing more than show up for school on an ordinary Friday in December.  This tragedy comes just one week after another deranged shooter opened fire in a crowded mall full of holiday shoppers in Portland Oregon, killing two shoppers and the shooter himself.  We who live in what many want to call the greatest country on earth are yet again enduring scenes of grief and lamentation as families and friends of the latest round of victims absorb the shock and horror of their loved ones’ violent deaths.  Does John the Baptist have anything to say to us as we grapple with these horrific tragedies? 

I think he does.  And I think we have to take very seriously what he has to tell us about “repentance.” “Repent” is one of those churchy words that has been so overused through the years that it has lost any real meaning for 21st century Christians.  We tend to think of repentance as some kind of pious feeling of remorse for our minor peccadilloes and misdeeds, quiet words of apology uttered under our breath to a God we’re not entirely sure is really listening.  But the kind of repentance that John the Baptist was looking for was something entirely different.  He wanted to see a complete change of direction, a radical shift in priorities.  Moreover, his idea of repentance (the Greek word is metanoia which means to turn around, to go a different direction) is directed at an entire society, not just individuals.  In the passage from Luke appointed for this Sunday, he is talking to a crowd of people, calling them a brood of vipers, and exhorting them not to rest on their laurels as “children of Abraham” but rather to do deeds worthy of that name and lineage.  I think its time we 21st century American people of faith listen up to this sharp tongued, fire and brimstone preacher because our very lives are at stake, never mind whatever eternal salvation we hope our religious faith will bring us. 

One thing John the Baptist appears to be very clear about is that the repentance he’s looking for has a lot to do with social responsibility and looking after the neighbor.  Those who have two coats, share with those who have none. Those who have food, share with those who have none.  And tax collectors be fair in business dealings and soldiers do not extort from others and be satisfied with the wages you’ve got.  And American citizens, stand up to the powerful gun lobbies in your midst and demand that assault weapons and the ammunition that goes with them be banned completely and access to them be absolutely unavailable to any civilian ever.  No one, least of all ordinary citizens, needs such weapons for protection.  The statistics are incontrovertible that countries that do not allow civilian access to guns have dramatically lower numbers of deaths by gun violence than we have in these United States.  The so-called “right to bear arms” enshrined in the Second Amendment to the Constitution cannot possibly have been intended to protect mentally unstable young men who decide to obtain assault weapons for the purposes of massacring large numbers of completely innocent people, including women and small children.  To quote from the folk song of the 60s, “Blowin in the Wind”, “How many deaths will it take till he knows, that too many people have died?”  Well, my friends, too many people have died and we all know it.  And the only way to stop it is for every citizen of this country demand that our elected representatives stand up to the gun lobby and ban assault weapons immediately.  I am well aware of the arguments about protecting the purchase of hunting rifles, but we all know that it is not hunting rifles that are being used to gun down innocent people in these mass shootings.  It is quite possible to regulate assault weapons while protecting a hunter’s right to shoot a buck in the woods.

And to those who might say to me that this is a political issue and not a religious one, I would respectfully beg to differ.  Every religion in the world forbids murder.  So long as we sit idly by and allow these lethal weapons to be bought and sold as easily as we buy products on, we are aiding and abetting mass murder.  At some point, these deaths become everyone’s responsibility.  Just as we all join in the prayers and candlelight vigils when these tragedies occur, so too must we join together to take action to mitigate the likelihood that they will continue to occur.  We have a collective responsibility to create a society that is safe for all citizens.  Right now we are living under siege. We can’t go to the mall, a school (elementary, high school or college), a movie theater, a place of worship, a political rally, a tourist site, or an airport without fear of violence at the hands of socio-pathic young men who’ve acquired assault weapons. This is home grown terrorism. So long as we sit back and allow the situation to continue we are complicit in the deaths that take place.  It is not enough to pray for the victims.  We must act to be sure there are no more victims next week, or next month, or tomorrow.  That’s the kind of repentance that John the Baptist was looking for as he shouted at the people and called them a “brood of vipers” and called them to bear fruits worthy of repentance.   

Many in the popular media comment on how particularly heartbreaking this tragedy is, coming as it does during the “holiday season” a time of family togetherness and songs about peace on earth and goodwill among people.  Here our liturgical season of Advent helps us to deal with the grief and lamentation that this tragedy brings with it.  In Advent we reflect on endings and beginnings, on our longing, our hope, our expectation that God will break into our dark world and bring light and redemption to places of darkness and pain.  We hear the voices of the prophets crying out in the wilderness, the voices of John the Baptist and Isaiah and Zephaniah.  These prophetic voices call us to take a hard look at where we are and where we are going.  They also promise hope for a future where joy will abound, the joy that comes from a life lived with God. 

 The mood in Advent is watchful, hopeful, and so very much aware of the brokenness in our world that only God can mend.  Advent reminds us of God’s promises of redemption and of the reality that we live in an “already but not yet” world where the fulfillment of God’s promises is not always readily apparent to us. We sing “O Come O Come Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel…that mourns in lonely exile here until the Son of God appear.”  We live these last days of Advent 2012 in lonely exile as we grapple with the reality of a society in which the slaughter of the innocents has become all too routine. 

John the Baptist was a prophet calling God’s people to turn around and re-orient their lives toward caring for their neighbors and creating a just and moral society.  He warned them not to rest on their lineage but rather to live up to it, to remember the values and ideals that come with being children of Abraham. In our 21st century context, we are called to remember and live into the value and ideals of the founding ancestors of these United States and I’m guessing mass murder of innocent children and their teachers, or of shoppers in a mall buying gifts for their families for Christmas, or people worshipping in their holy place on a Sunday morning or attending a late night movie isn’t what the framers of the Constitution nor the authors of the Second Amendment had in mind. 

In just nine days we Christians will celebrate Christmas. In that nine days, 20 small coffins will be laid into the ground taking with them the hopes and dreams of their parents, grandparents, siblings, friends and neighbors. Every death by gun violence in this country affects every one of us.  These are our neighbors, our colleagues, our children, our future.  Bear fruit worthy of repentance, shouts John the Baptist.  I pray that we will come together to pray for these victims and their families and to bear the sweet fruit of  repentance in the form of a popular uprising that demands more stringent gun control laws that just might reduce the frequency, if not eliminate completely, any more tragedies such as this one.   And while we’re at it, we might also demand that mental health care be readily available and affordable to everyone who needs it.  These shootings by mentally deranged young men suggest that something in our mental health care system needs attention sooner than later.

On this third Sunday in Advent 2012, there is much weeping and lamentation, grieving and sorrow in our land.  John the Baptist use the vivid image of wheat and chaff being separated out by God’s promised Messiah, with the chaff burning in unquenchable fire.  A world where six year old children are shot dead in their classrooms is a world where the flames of that burning chaff are burning brighter and hotter already.   It is time for us to listen to John the Baptist, who preached “good news” to those crowds by the Jordan, the good news of God’s promised redemption and of our freedom to choose to walk with God into that promised future.   Bear fruit worthy of repentance, he cries out to us.  And Paul reminds us “we can do all things through him who strengthens us.”   May this latest tragedy serve as the wake up call as strident as John the Baptist’s exhortations to move us from passivity to principled action so that those young children’s deaths will not have been in vain.  And may the God of peace be with us and have mercy on us.  Amen.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Interreligious Dialogue IS Action

At a recent meeting of the Commission on Christian Jewish Relations (CCJR) here in Rochester, the members of the Commission were engaged in a painful and difficult discussion, arising out of the controversy that erupted over a letter, signed by leaders of fifteen Protestant religious denominations and organizations that was sent to Congress on October 5, 2012 asking that Israel be held accountable for monies sent to it by the United States in light of what the authors of the letter perceive to be human rights abuses by Israel against Palestinians and Israeli Arabs.  The letter spawned a flurry of articles in various secular and religious newspapers and media outlets and angered a number of Jewish groups, including members of a dialogue roundtable that meets yearly to discuss the Israel/Palestine situation and of which a number of the signers of the letter were members.  The Jewish members of that dialogue group canceled their October 23 meeting.   As a commission dedicated to Christian Jewish dialogue in our local Rochester community, we believed we had to discuss this incident, as it had become a cause célèbre in American Christian Jewish relations. We knew it would be a difficult, painful and probably emotional discussion and we would have happily talked about something else if we could have, but we believed that to be true to our mission, we had to dive in, despite the discomfort it caused everyone on both sides of the controversy.    

In the course of our conversations that day, we reflected upon what is the point of interreligious dialogue.  Some people around the table believe that dialogue is not enough if it does not result in some visible action in the world.  We briefly talked about what we could “do” as a commission to address the controversy that had erupted in the wake of the letter.  One member of the commission then made a statement that I believe is critical to remember for those of us who engage in interfaith engagements of any kind:  Dialogue IS action. 

Indeed.  Dialogue is action.  For people to sit around a table and engage in substantive conversation about issues of mutual concern, about issues that are difficult to discuss across various divides is itself real action that makes a difference in the world.  Interreligious dialogue is not mere idle chatter.  While it does not aim to change anybody’s mind about fundamental religious beliefs, nor even about real world political and economic realities that often stem from such beliefs, it does some really important things that have real world consequences.  First and foremost, it creates relationships.  Real flesh and blood relationships between people who might otherwise never get to know one another very well.  And those relationships matter a lot.  Those of us on the CCJR have built deep levels of trust and respect between us and when these controversies erupt, and we have wildly different perspectives on the substance of the controversy, we nonetheless are able to engage in respectful, and even loving, conversation across those huge divides.  That is not nothing.  When people in conflict can see the person on the other side as a friend whose feelings matter, the whole tenor of the dialogue changes.  The need to be absolutely right diminishes as the desire to find some common ground arises. Stereotypes are shattered and the religious “other” becomes a human being with a face and a name.  Relationships can be transformative, and transformation is what most religious traditions invite their adherents into. 

That same week the Interfaith Chapel hosted the first Scriptural Reasoning event, gathering Jewish, Christian and Muslim students in the “Tent of Abraham, Sarah and Hagar” (literally – in a tent!) on the River Level of our chapel.  This was a first tentative step in bringing these students together to talk about their respective sacred scriptures, sharing with each other out of their own experiences and beliefs and beginning to learn to listen to one another as they presented their own scriptures to one another.  This was a new experience for these students, some of whom have not engaged in interreligious dialogue before. They are interested in learning how to do it and willing to learn about each other in more than superficial ways.  As I watched and listened to them courageously discussing their own sacred texts with others for whom those texts are not so sacred, I was grateful for their willingness to go out on the emotional limb and open themselves to this dialogical process.  Over time, I hope they will come to know one another and respect one another more deeply.  As trust builds they will be able to share more and question more.  It was a beginning and I was honored to be able to share it with them.

Dialogue IS action.  Whether it’s a group like CCJR that has been together for many years and where the participants know each other well, or a group of college kids just coming together for the first time and not sure what its all about, dialogue is the beginning of relationship building.  Relationships of trust and respect matter enormously in a world of sound bites and polarized political and social rhetoric.  In a religiously pluralistic world dialogue between people of different religious traditions is action that matters because it builds bridges of compassion and understanding that can help temper conflicts when they inevitably arise and perhaps, even promote cooperation and problem solving.  

When CCJR came together around our monthly dialogue table in the midst of a painful controversy, that dialogue was itself meaningful interfaith action.  When the college students took time out of their ridiculously busy schedules to gather in the tent and dialogue with one another across their different religious traditions they were not just killing time or making small talk.  They were acknowledging the interconnectedness of all of us.  As St. Paul reminds the Corinthians, one member of a body cannot say to another “I have no need of you.” (1 Cor. 12:21)  All of the human family is connected.   We all have need of one another and when we engage in dialogue, particularly at difficult junctures, we acknowledge our interdependence and connection. 

Monday, October 29, 2012

Nones at the Table

In a recent rebroadcast of an interview between journalist Krista Tippett and poet Christian Wiman on Tippett’s OnBeing program on NPR radio, Wiman made a comment that really called me up short.  “I think that God calls some people to unbelief so that faith can take new forms.”  He and Tippett were discussing Wiman’s own journey from a childhood faith, through a period of agnosticism/atheism and a return in his late 30s to a Christian religious faith.  But the idea that God calls some people to unbelief so that the faith of believers may take new forms got me thinking!!

The “beliefs” and “faith” of an increasingly large group of the American population, those dubbed the “nones” meaning people who claim no religious affiliation and/or who consider themselves atheist/agnostic or spiritual-but-not-religious (SBNR), have been the subject of lively conversation recently as the Pew Forum released its most recent study of religious life in America in which the statistics show that fully 20% of the American population today falls into the category of “no religious affiliation” or “none.”  Among those under age 30 the percentage is even higher – fully 30% of that age group.  Christian churches, both mainline and Evangelical, are struggling to make sense of this data and trying to figure out what it means for their very existence, as church participation continues its precipitous decline.  The Pew Forum research shows that of those “nones”, fully 88% of them are not even seeking to affiliate with an established religious denomination or religion.  Certainly in the Christian context, for those who seek to know what it will take to “grow the church” these statistics are not encouraging. 

While participation in established religious traditions and their rituals is on the decline the statistics also suggest that the American public is not uninterested in the issues and concerns that have typically been dubbed the purview of religion.  Issues of human purpose, existential questions about meaning, about suffering, about the quest for emotional, spiritual and physical wholeness and healing, about the role and place of humans in the universe, are burning questions for lots of people.  The sad truth is many of them have not found traditional religious communities to be places where such questions are deeply considered.  They have often found that their own quest for understanding and exploration of those Big Questions is not affirmed in traditional religious settings either.  Among the nones fully 70% think religious groups are too concerned with money and power and 67% say they are too focused on rules. 

The other fascinating finding in this study is that among the nones there is a significant percentage of folks who pray regularly and engage in other spiritual practices, such as meditation, yoga, spiritual reading and other traditionally spiritual practices.  The nones do not categorically eschew religious rituals or practices.   Indeed, they recognize and yearn for such rituals, but again, do not find the traditional places of religious worship meeting their particular needs for such rituals in their own lives. 

In the world of interreligious dialogue, the nones have been seeking a place at the table for a number of years.  Atheist/agnostic/ SBNR groups have been actively a part of interreligious conferences, including the Council for the Parliament of the World’s Religions in 2009.  Colleges are beginning to discover that Secular Student Alliances and Atheist/Agnostic groups seek to be part of college chaplaincy activities, with Harvard University going so far as appointing an Atheist/Humanist chaplain.  The voices of the nones are being heard at interfaith dialogue tables and their presence is to be applauded because they are not afraid to ask the hard questions and to push the affiliated participants to deep thinking and clear articulation of their long held religious beliefs and assumptions.  Indeed, in Krista Tippett’s interview with Christian Wiman, Wiman recalled that Dietrich Bonhoeffer once commented that he enjoyed engaging in dialogue with atheists because of the questions they ask of religion.

Religious people have a tendency, if they invite the nones to the dialogue table, to think of themselves as the purveyors of wisdom to these unaffiliated persons. Secretly, many religious people also hope to convince the nones that their religious tradition does have something valuable to offer and hope to see those folks join a religious tradition.  I think its time we in the religious traditions look to the nones as sources of wisdom in their own right, and engage in dialogue with them, not in the hopes of winning them over to religion, or back to religion, but in order that our faith might take new and invigorating forms. 

Perhaps the increased presence of the nones in our culture and their willingness to engage in dialogue with us is God’s way of moving us towards new and revitalized forms of faith.  Perhaps their willingness to engage our secular culture without trying to demonize it is an invitation to all of us within religious traditions to embrace our culture, including literature, the humanities, science, the social sciences, psychology and other disciplines, not to mention the arts and even popular culture, in new ways and with enthusiasm for how those voices may contribute to new forms of professing and living our faith. Perhaps the challenges that the nones lob at people of religious faith can become opportunities for us to dig deeper into our religious traditions to develop thoughtful and nuanced responses that take seriously the challenges raised by those with no commitment to a particular tradition.   Douglas John Hall, Reformed theologian from Canada, speaking about the struggles in contemporary Protestant contexts says it well:

[T]he gift of a future will have to be met by a new, cheerful, and disciplined readiness on the part of Christian individuals, congregations, and “churches” to take responsibility for its implementation.  That is, the church will have to become the ‘disciple community’ all over again, and in great earnestness.
And for churches in the United States and Canada, it seems to me, that means one thing in particular: they will have to seek to deepen. And they will only deepen if they are ready to become communities of theological struggle, contemplation and dialogue. …Thought is of the essence of the cross that North American Christians today are called to pick up and carry![1]

The call to deepen the discussion and engage in thoughtful dialogue sounds clearly from the nones and is a call that we who profess religious faith should take seriously. Interreligious dialogue must include the voices of the nones/SBNR/atheist/agnostic thinkers for the sake of the religious people at the table.  The rise of the nones on the American religious landscape may be just the catalyst many of our communities need to develop new and creative forms of faith. 

[1] Douglas John Hall, Confessing the Faith, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1998), 264.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Crossing Over and Passing Back: The Journey into God

        I’m an Episcopal priest.  From childhood I’ve loved church, particularly the music, the incense, and the Eucharistic ritual.  When I stand at the altar Sunday after Sunday, chanting words of prayer I’ve known since childhood, I transcend for a moment the boundaries of space and time and feel the presence of the Holy in the gathered community and the bread and wine of the Eucharist.  No matter how busy or stressed I may be, walking into a church on a Sunday morning feels like “coming home” and my spiritual center returns as I prepare the elements, don the vestments, check the gospel book and get ready to lead the community in worship, prayer and the celebration of the sacred mysteries.  The hymns, the prayers and the ritual of the Eucharist make Christ present and real in that holy “thin place” whether it be a large, well appointed city church or a small country chapel with just a few folks.

Interfaith dialogue is very much alive in our land these days, and certainly here in Rochester.  For many of us raised in a particular religious tradition, simply walking into the sacred space of our tradition can conjure up the sense of the transcendent as we are enveloped in the symbols and ritual of that tradition. When we enter someone else’s sacred space, however, we might feel like a stranger in a strange land, as if we have crossed a border into foreign territory far from the God we know and worship.  In my years of interfaith dialogue and education, I have come to appreciate how spiritually significant it is for those of us who want to know our interfaith neighbors better, to overcome shyness and awkwardness, fear and suspicion, and enter their sacred space with an equally open heart, expecting to hear the voice of God and to see the face of God in new ways through rituals and prayers not our own. 

Paul Knitter in his book, Without Buddha I could not be a Christian describes his experience of becoming immersed in the Buddhist tradition as an experience of “passing over” and “passing back” as he practices Buddhist meditation and then returns to his Roman Catholic roots when attending church.  Interreligious encounter is often structured as an intellectual exercise, where we gather folks together for discussion of sacred texts or beliefs, but often we leave out a most important piece of the genuine interfaith encounter, which is prayer.   And when I say prayer, I do not mean a carefully crafted “interfaith prayer”, something written or prepared specifically for an interfaith gathering so that it will be acceptable to anyone, but prayer that is rooted in the particularity of a specific religious tradition, with the images, symbols, language and cadence of that tradition.  I have come to believe that sharing in the worship of my interreligious neighbors is a profoundly moving spiritual experience through which I come to know the God I first met in my Episcopal church tradition, more deeply than I can within the confines of my own tradition.  I have become an advocate of interfaith “crossing over,” including participation in the rituals of others, where such participation is acceptable to one’s hosts and does not violate one’s own sense of religious propriety.

Recently I attended a portion of the ceremonies at the Hindu Temple of Rochester during which the image of the deity Ganesha was consecrated and installed at the Hindu temple.  Those rituals took place over four full days so I only experienced part of the extensive ritual.  I took off my shoes, entered the temple and sat on the floor with the devotees, taking in the scent of the incense and the sounds of the chanting by several Hindu priests. I watched the flames of the fire ceremonies and the offerings of food, water, grains, flowers and other items as they were given to the murti.  Even though I do not understand Sanskrit nor Hindi, the sound, rhythm and cadence of the chants washed over me and I could feel the presence of the holy in all of the rituals as the devotees participated with the priests in the prayers and offerings that would imbue the granite likeness of Ganesha with the divine spirit.  I joined the line and poured rice over the image during one of the puja ceremonies, sensing the sacred just as I do when I consecrate the bread and wine on Sunday mornings in my church. Not knowing the words to the chants, I nonetheless hummed along, the sonorous quality of the chanting taking me to a quiet and contemplative place. When I go to the Temple now, I like to go visit Ganesha for prayer, sensing the presence of God in that odd elephant-headed deity who gazes impishly and lovingly from his pedestal adorned in beautiful garments and surrounded by offerings of food, flowers and incense.  

Then this week, after our second of three Muslim Christian dialogue events at the Islamic Center, I went, as I often do, to the balcony, where the women pray, for Isha prayers, the final night prayers in the Muslim roster of five times a day prayer.  Again, I removed my shoes, and this time I chose to stand in line, shoulder to shoulder with my Muslim sisters to experience the prayer as they experience it, no longer an observer, but a participant.  I do not understand Arabic, although I can understand the phrase Allah-u- Akbar, (God is Great) and I have read English translations of the prayers and know there is nothing prayed there to which I cannot assent.  I felt strongly the presence of the holy as we stood together in the masjid, the sound of the recitation of verses from the Qur’an soaring in the prayer space as the imam recited them beautifully. The sound of those Arabic words recited in a sacred chant invokes the sense of God’s presence.  I understand why Muslims believe the words of the Qur’an to be holy words as the very sound of them brings God into the room.  I was profoundly moved by the practice of prostrating myself as part of the prayer ritual.  Christians have, for the most part, lost touch with the importance of using the body in prayer.  Muslims have something to teach us about what it means to surrender to God, and that sense of surrender becomes palpable as the forehead touches the floor.  And the sense of being part of a praying community is deepened as you stand shoulder to shoulder with others bowing, prostrating and standing in a sacred dance that incarnates the reality that we are all connected one with another and ultimately with God.

Carl Jung had a sign over his door, a replica of which I keep in my office, which declares, “Bidden or not bidden, God is present.”  Thanks to the hospitality of my interfaith neighbors I have been blessed to experience God’s presence in a variety of distinct and different sacred spaces and rituals.  I do not feel fear or estrangement when I enter a holy place, rather I feel like a child playing hide and seek, waiting to discover God in some unexpected way as I take in the details of that space, the sounds of the prayers, the movements of the practitioners, and the smells of incense or rugs or candles.  God has many faces and many voices and the people with whom I pray in these holy places become fellow pilgrims on the sacred journey as I join with them in prayer.  By crossing over and passing back I have discovered that truly, there is nowhere in the world where God is not. 

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Empowering Women: An Interfaith Challenge


In the past couple of weeks, two different incidents of cyber-bullying of women have garnered media attention.  On September 25 the Huffington Post reported on a post made to Reddit, a social media site, of a photograph of a young Sikh college student snapped by a man in an airport security line.  Balpreet Kaur, a sophomore at Ohio State University is a baptized and practicing Sikh and therefore does not cut her hair, in accordance with her religious tradition.  She has an unusual amount of facial hair for a woman, and the person who posted the photograph was clearly poking fun at her untraditional and “unfeminine” appearance.  The post-er thought he was being funny.  The post went viral, and when Balpreet learned about it from a friend, she responded with grace and dignity.  In her response to her critic on the Reddit site she wrote,  "When I die, no one is going to remember what I looked like, heck, my kids will forget my voice, and slowly, all physical memory will fade away. However, my impact and legacy will remain: and, by not focusing on the physical beauty, I have time to cultivate those inner virtues and hopefully, focus my life on creating change and progress for this world in any way I can." Balpreet is studying to be a neurosurgeon.

This week, Jennifer Livingston, news anchor for WKBT television in Wisconsin received an e-mail from one Kenneth Krause accusing her of being an inappropriate role model for young children because she is overweight.  Livingston, after speaking with her husband and her superiors at the news station, responded to her critic publicly, on the air, in a dignified and strongly worded rebuttal.  “I’m much more than a number on a scale,” she said, and she took her critic to task for his mean and uncompassionate attack on her based upon her appearance.  Her response to this bully provided a role model for girls everywhere, as Livingston refused to retreat in abject humiliation at an attack on her personal appearance, an attack that likely would not have been leveled at a male news anchor who was similarly overweight.

Then tragically, in our Rochester community, everyone was shocked and traumatized by the tragic death last Saturday evening (9/29/2012) of a Brockport College freshman, an 18 year old swim team member, just weeks into her college career, at the hands of her 21 year old boyfriend, in what is apparently a case of domestic violence turned lethal.

All of these incidents serve as reminders that despite years of progress, in terms of feminism and “women’s rights,” women still live in a world where their bodies are considered fair game for ridicule, and even for physical violence.   These incidents happened to hit the prime time news just as PBS was airing a stunning four hour documentary, “Half The Sky” produced by Nicholas Kristof, New York Times columnist and his wife, Sheryl WuDunn based upon their book by that name, in which they chronicle the oppression of women in various places throughout the world, including Somaliland, Kenya, India, and Cambodia. It is still the case in far too many places in the world that women are disposable, and their bodies are considered property of their male relatives, or, in the case of sex trafficking, those who “own” them and sell their bodies for profit.  And all too often, religious beliefs are offered as a rationale for treating women in these destructive ways.

Interfaith dialogue on issues affecting women tends to be done tentatively and infrequently. When such conversations do occur, they are often dubbed “Women’s Interfaith Dialogue” and relegated to the background, given less publicity and often undertaken primarily by women, as if men have little interest in addressing the global consequences of the oppression of women. It remains true that religious institutions are often the locus of considerable dis-empowerment of women if not outright oppression.  In many traditions women cannot assume religious leadership roles and their voices are relegated to those issues considered appropriate for women, which usually don’t include substantive religious or theological discussions. And sadly, in too many religious traditions, tenets of the faith or snippets of the tradition’s holy writ are used as justification for violence against women. Or, as is the case with Roman Catholic women’s religious orders in the United States today, women who do take an active and vocal role in the life of their religious tradition come under considerable scrutiny and harassment simply for doing the good work their religious faith calls them to do, often work that the high powered men in the tradition wouldn’t deign to do. 

The time has come for the interfaith movement to commit to serious conversation and advocacy for the empowerment of women.   Women continue to be bullied and oppressed in ways great and small throughout the world, often in the name of religion.  The great religious traditions of the world offer much wisdom and support for the empowerment of women but that wisdom all too often remains hidden and untapped. The empowerment of women and girls is an important humanitarian issue, not merely a “women’s issue.”  When women and girls receive education and health care and are equipped to earn a living to support themselves and their families, whole villages and communities see a rise in their standard of living.  When college campuses become safe places where women can receive the education they need to move into promising careers without having to contend with worries about date rape, domestic violence or bullying about their physical appearance, everyone will benefit.  Balpreet Kaur, a young woman, a college sophomore and a religious Sikh, acting out of her own religious beliefs and commitments, is a role model for college students everywhere and especially those of us committed to interfaith dialogue.  After the bullying incident last week, she wrote of her own commitment to interfaith engagement:

I started wearing my heart on my sleeve and seeing every stare as a chance for dialogue and friendship. I began to firmly believe in the power of the spoken and written word. I finally began to realize that I had to take charge of my own narrative; if I didn't, then that ignorance I saw in people's eyes would never change into knowledge. That's what it means to be a Sikh and an interfaith leader.
I hope my story inspires people to learn more not only about the Sikh tradition, but also about what it is in their own faith or philosophy that would inspire them to respond to moments of nastiness with grace. I also hope my story inspires people to become interfaith leaders themselves…Together we are better, together we can overcome prejudice, and together we can make interfaith cooperation a social norm. (Balpreet Kaur, Huffington Post Blog, 10/5/2012)

And together, as interfaith leaders we must address pressing issues for women and girls, everything from date rape and domestic violence on college campuses, to cyber-bullying, to sex trafficking and modern day slavery, to issues of equal opportunity in the workplace and civil society.   At the University of Rochester our motto is “Meliora” – Ever Better.  As interfaith leaders we must commit to making the world in which our women and girls live “ever better” in order to make our entire community “ever better.”   

Thursday, September 27, 2012

The Tongue –A Wanton Killer

The old childhood ditty about “sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me” (which, by the way, is a mischaracterization of the original poem in which the power of words to hurt was the whole point!) has run through my mind a lot in the past couple of weeks. First we endured the violence that erupted in a number of Muslim countries over the release of the anti-Muslim video denigrating the prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), and now we are subjected to print ads appearing on buses and trains in our nation’s major cities proclaiming “In any war between the civilized man and the savage, support the civilized man.  Support Israel.  Defeat Jihad.”  That shocking print ad has caused no end of uproar, not only from Muslims who feel yet again attacked, demonized, degraded, and demeaned by the implications that Muslims are “savages”, but also by many supporters of Israel who find the ad disgusting and fear it does more to harm Israel’s standing in the world than to garner support for it.  Not to mention the horrible historical associations that the word “savages” has for African Americans and Native Americans who suffered terribly at the hands of colonial oppressors who characterized them as savages as they dragged them into slavery or slaughtered them while conquering their land.  Not to mention the sexist implications of the word “man.” 

In all the controversy erupting over both these incidents, the issue of how we exercise our freedom of speech becomes a central question.  In our American democracy we revere our first amendment right to free speech.  We believe wholeheartedly that everyone has the right to say what they think, however atrocious, obnoxious, rude, mean or hateful it is with only the caveat that it must not incite listeners to engage in destructive or violent behavior.  With the advent of the internet and social media, it has become even easier for everyone with access to the internet to voice their opinions and thoughts and disseminate that speech around the world if they so choose.  Sometimes I think we are suffering from “too much of a good thing.”  In our commitment to protect free speech, have we created a society in which civility, good manners, and respect for the feelings of others are values of a quaint and distant past?  Is it true that “mere words” are sufficiently benign that they need only minimal regulation? 

While I am no advocate of censorship, nor do I wish to see us become a country where people can be charged with “treason” or “blasphemy” based on their written or oral rants, I cannot help but wonder if we might not need to revisit the wisdom of our religious traditions on matters of the tongue and pen (and now text, tweet, e-mail, blogpost, YouTube videos, etc!)  It is undoubtedly the case that we need to continue to uphold freedom of speech as a civil and legal right, but we might also want to engage in some intentional, spiritual reflection on what kind of civic community we want to create.  All the major religious traditions of the world have something to say on issues of “free speech.”

In the Christian tradition, the weekly Sunday lectionary has been taking believers through the pastoral Epistle of James for the past several Sundays.   This short pastoral letter is a great source of wisdom on issues of the tongue, and it has some pretty strong things to say about the dangers of unfettered and unfiltered speech.   For example, This is scary: You can tame a tiger, but you can’t tame a tongue—it’s never been done. The tongue runs wild, a wanton killer. With our tongues we bless God our Father; with the same tongues we curse the very men and women he made in his image. Curses and blessings out of the same mouth!” (James 3:7-10, Message Version, a contemporary translation)  The author of the “savages” billboard and the producers of the anti-Muslim video certainly chose to use their tongues as “wanton killers.” 

Warnings about the dangers of hateful speech have long been the subject of religious teachings.  One of the practices of the Buddhist eight-fold path is “right speech” meaning that a practitioner endeavors always to be mindful of what she says so as not to harm others.  One of the Ten Commandments exhorts God’s people, “Do not bear false witness against your neighbor.”  Judaism, Christianity and Islam all try to keep that commandment.  In the Hindu tradition, the doctrine of karma suggests that you will reap what you sew in everything you do and say in this life, so that hateful, demeaning speech against others will boomerang back at the speaker at some point in the long cycle of human and world history.  In the Bahai tradition, gossip is a particularly grievous sin and something that Bahais are taught to avoid at all costs.  Most religious traditions understand and teach that while you may have a right to think whatever you choose, and, in free democracies, the right to say it or write it, it is not always the case that you should exercise that right.  The mere fact that you can do it does not suggest that you should do it.  All religious traditions revere the practice of silence.  Sages from the dawn of time have learned that curbing the human tongue is often good for everyone.

Religion is often blamed for fomenting hatred and violence in our world.  The fact is that our religious traditions are equally significant sources of wisdom about how to live in loving community with one another.  Monastic traditions through the ages have taught their initiates the importance of “custody of the tongue.”  While we may not all agree on much when it comes to religious doctrines or practices, the practice of mindful speech and refraining from “false witness” is widely accepted.  It is possible to engage in reasoned discourse in a free society without insulting and demeaning those with whom we disagree.   When we fail to do that we hurt ourselves as much as those we purport to demean.  Candidate Romney learned that hard lesson in the past few weeks, as ill considered words he uttered came back to haunt him and severely damage his campaign. 

In a world awash in words, words, words on TV, YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, newspapers, magazines, radio, it might be time to revisit the wisdom of the religious sages of ages past. Take a mini-vow of silence and speak only when words will enhance the quality of communal life and deepen compassion for friend and stranger. 

Thursday, September 20, 2012

If Jesus Was Married, Could Sex be Sacred?

Who would have thought that an esoteric, scholarly conference on early Christianity, held in Rome this week, would generate a storm of controversy as Dr. Karen King, professor and scholar at Harvard Divinity School gave a paper in which she reports on the discovery of a small papyrus fragment, believed to date to the early 4th century and written in Coptic, on which were found the words, “And Jesus said to them, my wife…” and then another fragment “she will be able to be my disciple.”  The firestorm of articles, op-eds, blogs, scholarly and not-so-scholarly responses to this news has rocked the Christian and non-Christian world alike. 

The debate about whether Jesus may or may not have been married is hardly new.  It’s been going on for years, in both popular and scholarly circles.  Dale Martin, Yale New Testament scholar sums it up brilliantly in his book “Sex and the Single Savior” where he writes, “Jesus has been a figure of ambiguous sexuality.”[1]  In popular culture, the film “The Last Temptation of Christ,” released in 1988 and later the mystery novel by Dan Brown, The DaVinci Code, released in 2003 both suggested some liaison between Mary Magdalene and Jesus, including possibly marriage and a child between them.  These fictional accounts picked up on scholarship arising from the study of the Dead Sea Scrolls, which suggested that in the early centuries of Christian history the idea that Jesus might have been married was bandied about in various Christian circles. By the late 4th century such ruminations were relegated to the category of heresy and the writings giving rise to them were lost until the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in the early 20th century.

Scholars are quick to downplay the likelihood that this most recent scrap of 4th century papyrus offers any “proof” one way or the other.  Denominations within the Christian tradition that have denied women access to ordination on the basis of Jesus’ maleness, or that require a celibate priesthood based on his presumed celibacy, have a vested interest in disproving anything that might suggest otherwise.  The truth or falsity of the notion that Jesus did or did not have a wife is not the crucial question in this controversial discussion, however.  The real question is why does anyone care?  Why are questions about Jesus’ sexuality so explosive?

Think about it.  Lots of other famous religious figures were married, with children.  Siddhartha Gautama had a wife and child that he left behind to go on his ascetic quest for enlightenment.  The prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) had several wives and many children.  Joseph Smith similarly had several wives and many children.  Even legendary Abraham, the father of three major Western religious traditions, was married to Sarah, but also had a relationship with Hagar, with whom he fathered Ishmael, through whom the Muslim tradition traces its lineage to Abraham.  Important figures in Hindu mythology (while not historical figures in the same way as Jesus or Muhammad) are all portrayed in relationship with female consorts and wives.   Guru Nanak, founder of the Sikh religion and the first of their 10 gurus, was married.  Marriage (and the sex that is presumed to go with it) is not inconsistent with holiness, nor does a married founding figure rule out a spirituality of asceticism, including celibacy, within a religious tradition.

The reaction within and outside of the Christian tradition, to the possibility of Jesus having been married says more about us than about him.  Human sexuality in its infinite variety, has been a subject of unending controversy in the past several decades. Controversies over issues of contraception and family planning, the debate over legal abortion, the increasing rate of divorce, and the ongoing debates about the fact of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people in our midst and whether or not they may marry or take positions of religious leadership in our communities, are but some of the issues involving human sexuality that have dominated discussions of sexual ethics in our religious communities.

Inside and outside of religious communities, we are struggling to articulate some kind of sexual ethics that makes sense for our pluralistic modern culture and not managing to do it well.  With the advent of the “free love, anything goes” ethos of the late 60s and early 70s we moved into a time of sexual freedom and experimentation, only to discover that such freedom didn’t release us from the need to integrate our sexuality with our lives as spiritual human beings.  Sexuality and spirituality are intricately connected aspects of human existence.  Religious discourse has danced around human sexuality for centuries to the detriment of our common humanity.  The Christian tradition, while espousing a theology of incarnation, claiming Jesus to be both fully divine and fully human, has nonetheless tried mightily to deny Jesus all of the humanity that the rest of us share. 

Our secular culture is soaked with sexual messages and sexual imagery, little of it helpful to any attempt to become a spiritually whole sexual human being.  In the interfaith movement, little time has been devoted to discussing issues of human sexuality, in all its complexity, because these issues are controversial and touch on intimate realities of human life.   At the Council for the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Melbourne, Australia in 2009, some 8500 people gathered for seven days of interfaith engagement and dialogue on every conceivable issue.  Human sexuality was only addressed in two workshops out of the hundreds offered at the Parliament.   The deep connection between sexuality and spirituality is evidenced in the mystical traditions of many world religions. The mystics of the world write, sing and speak in highly erotic terms, even when they lead celibate lives.  Is it possible that our failure to integrate these two important aspects of human existence has contributed to the proliferation of sexual abuse scandals that have come to light in recent months, not only in religious institutions but also in secular communities such as sports programs, the Boy Scouts, and private high schools?  Just as we have denied Jesus his full sexual humanity, we have denied ourselves our full spiritual humanity by bi-furcating the sexual and the spiritual as if they could not possibly co-exist.

Whether Jesus was married or not, whether he ever had sex or not does not make much difference in the grand scheme of things. What does matter is that all religious traditions face squarely the challenges all of their adherents confront in living spiritually and sexually healthy, whole lives.  In the pluralistic world in which we now live, those conversations need to happen both within and across traditions, so that we can share wisdom and insight from a variety of perspectives.  The voices of women, of the elderly, of the LGBTQ community, of single people and of the disabled need to be invited into these conversations as well, so that the full range of human sexual and spiritual experience can be brought to bear on these important spiritual discussions.  Such conversations must rise above the banal “thou shalt” and “thou shalt not” so that the true depth of the encounter with the sacred that is integral to human sexual experience may be explored.   

[1] Dale Martin, Sex and the Single Savior, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006), p. 91.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Terrorism by Film and by Bombs


So it happened again, and on September 11 no less.  A group of extremist Islamic terrorists, possibly Al Qaeda backed, attack the American Embassy in Libya, killing our Ambassador, Chris Stevens and three other diplomatic employees there.  The alleged cause of the rage of the attackers is a film produced by a Sam Bacile (who’s identity is under scrutiny at the time of this writing), allegedly an Israeli Jew who believes that Islam is a cancer that must be wiped out.  The attackers were enraged by the content of the film, which denigrated the Prophet Muhammad and insulted both the prophet and the religion of Islam.  The attackers associated the film with America (it having been produced in this country).  So in a summer where we’ve endured a series of mass shootings on our own soil, one by an extremist right here at home, we find ourselves confronted again with the reality of terrorism and its propensity to shatter the peace of our ordinary days without a moment’s notice.

When I first heard the news of the attack on the embassy and the death of Ambassador Stevens, I mourned the senseless violence and the loss of the lives of these American diplomats.  I also worried about my Muslim friends in this country, who I feared would once again become the targets of the Islamophobia that has become endemic in our American society.  The media coverage of the Libyan attack, with shots of burning cars and buildings with obscene graffiti and the American flag being torn to shreds and burned by angry Libyan mobs, does nothing to make life for American Muslims any safer.  Politicians and religious leaders immediately condemned the attacks, including many Muslim leaders in this country, but I know that the subliminal message taken away by many a TV news viewer will cast all Muslims as suspicious, dangerous and undesirable.  A hateful film ignites a violent response and everyone loses.  While the filmmaker, under our American principles of free speech, is free to exercise his creativity in whatever distorted and perverse way he sees fit, such expressions of hate and disrespect only throw a match on the gas soaked rags of international tensions and racial and religious prejudices.  And now the violence is spreading throughout the Middle East as more protesters in more countries threaten American embassies and engage in violence. Once again, violence perpetuates itself and everyone loses.

How ironic that religion, which actually is a source of wisdom and teaching about values such as compassion, respect, peace and understanding between and among the peoples of the earth, consistently becomes a flashpoint leading to acts of violence and hatred which are completely at odds with the fundamental principles of all the great religions of the world.  “Blessed are the peacemakers” from Christian tradition.  “Those who control their rage and pardon other people – Allah loves the good doers.” (Qur’an – Surat al Imran 134)  - Islam.  “Thus says the Lord of Hosts: render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another.”  (Zechariah 7:9)  People like this mysterious Sam Bacile, who prefer to vilify those whose religion is different from theirs, distort the very foundation of their own religious tradition.  There is no room, even in a country that so reveres free speech, for the kind of hateful, vitriolic and disrespectful attacks on another religious tradition as was contained in the Bacile film.  Just because our Constitution gives you the right to be hateful does not mean society should condone it.  If ever there was a time to redouble our efforts to encourage interfaith dialogue and interfaith engagement, so that more people come to see the religious “other” as a friend and neighbor, now is that time.   

Forgiveness is a virtue in all religious traditions and it is one that everyone on all sides of this terrible incident must put into practice.  The angry mobs in Libya and Yemen and other countries must forgive the filmmaker, and the American public must forgive both the filmmaker and the killers of our diplomats.  There is simply no other way to defuse this hostile situation and make room for peace and a hopeful tomorrow.  Individuals here at home can pray for the dead and for their grieving families, while reaching out to Muslim neighbors in friendship and support during this frightening time.  We can refuse to watch anti-Muslim clips on YouTube, we can refuse to forward Islamphobic e-mails, we can become a part of a discourse that leans towards respect for people of all religious traditions and come together as an interfaith community to condemn the hateful rhetoric that gave rise to the violence which we all agree is reprehensible. We must be vigilant within our own borders to be sure that the violence being done to Americans abroad does not translate into violence against American Muslims here at home. 

We must become critical consumers of news and hold our media accountable for how they report on incidents like this so that no one religious or ethnic group becomes the scapegoat for the rage and fear gripping the general population.  We must look at ourselves as a culture and a major power in the global community and accept responsibility for our actions in foreign countries that exacerbate tensions instead of relieving them.  As this incident shows, that job is not limited to the diplomats. Anyone with access to a video camera and You Tube can undo years of diplomatic work with one ill conceived, disrespectful or hateful posting in a social media outlet or releasing a film that demonizes a religious tradition and its people.  Terrorism is global and so is the “war on terrorism.”  One person at a time, one community at a time we can combat the threat of terrorism by reaching out to our neighbors of different religious traditions so as to break down stereotypes, debunk myths and prejudices and form a more close knit interfaith community in towns, villages, cities and nations.  There is no time like the present to listen to the great peacemaker, Gandhi and to work to become the change we want to see in the world. 


Friday, September 7, 2012

God on the Platform

This year’s presidential election process has been in full swing these past two weeks as first the Republicans gathered for their convention in Tampa, followed this week by the Democrats in Charlotte.  I found it slightly amusing to read on the internet yesterday that the Democrats had “returned God to the platform” referring to the re-insertion of the words “God given potential” in the party’s platform document, words that had been omitted earlier in the week.  Apparently, the Republicans had a field day with the omission of “God” from the Democratic Platform so the Dems had to scramble to put God back!

While I fully understand the partisan politics that were behind this incident and why politicians decided they needed to “return God to the platform,” the irony of the entire controversy is staggering.  I find myself very uncomfortable with the extent to which our American political process purports to enlist God on each party’s side as if God were an undecided voter that each party is trying to win over!  Or worse, that each party somehow believes that by invoking God in their speeches and platform and campaign documents, God will use divine influence to sway the election their way.  Similarly, at the risk of sounding wildly unpatriotic, I cringe every time someone shouts “God Bless America” as they begin or end a speech.  Why, you might ask?

We are a country that purports to believe in the separation of church and state, for one thing.  By definition, and by our founding principles, we have supposedly recognized that God is above human political interests and that God operates outside of national political processes.  Moreover, we also recognize that there are people amongst us who do not believe in God, or at least not in the particular God of a particular candidate at any given time.  We are also a country of immigrants, many of whom are now proudly citizens of the United States but who also have deep roots in their countries of origin, countries that God (if one believes in God) must surely also bless.  When I hear “God Bless America” I can’t help but whisper a more expansive blessing, “And all the nations and peoples of this planet.”    We are also a religiously pluralistic nation where people worship and relate to a divine supreme being in myriad ways, calling that deity by different names, using different prayers and rituals.  The complexity of the God of all nations and peoples gets lost in the sound bites of our political rhetoric, and my guess is that many citizens of this country who worship God in traditions other than the prevailing Judeo-Christian model, might feel somewhat marginalized by these breezy political sound-bites invoking God as if God were a team mascot. 

Most importantly, this political posturing where references to God are inserted or deleted from political statements or speeches ignores the reality that if God is properly to be a part of our free political process, it isn’t the political candidates that need to invoke the deity, but the voters who need to go deep within themselves and pray and reflect upon the teachings of their particular religious tradition to determine how they can exercise their right to vote in a way truly consistent with the values and morals that their religion instills in them.  In churches, synagogues, mosques, gurdwaras, temples and meeting halls, people of all religious traditions, and thoughtful people who do not affiliate with any religious tradition need to reflect long and hard on the values that matter to them as they consider which candidate should receive their vote.  And I am not talking about discreet political hot button issues, like abortion or contraception or same sex marriage, but much more fundamental issues like what kind of community do we want to create and by what communal values do we want to live?   How do we care for the most vulnerable in our society and how do we exercise hospitality to those who are not like us?  What role does wealth play in our culture and how is it distributed?  How do we resolve conflict – diplomacy or guns?  How do we hold people accountable for their actions – retributive justice or restorative justice? My study of world religions tells me that every tradition has something profound to say on these fundamental issues. 

God is not a Democrat nor a Republican. God is not Christian or Jewish or Muslim or Hindu or Buddhist or Mormon.  God is not American or Chinese or African.   Putting God back in the Democratic Party Platform won’t make much difference unless and until all citizens of this country, those of religious faith and those of no religious affiliation at all, take the time to think long and hard about the kind of country we want to live in and the responsibilities our citizenship lays upon us.  For people of faith, this is something that integrates their religious and spiritual commitments with their responsibilities as citizens of these United States.  It calls upon each one of us to apply the moral and ethical teachings of our religious tradition to the realities of the political economy in which we live out our religious faith, alongside people of different religious traditions or of no religious tradition.   

So God may be back in the Democratic party platform as God has been resting comfortably in the Republican party platform all along, but as a religious person that doesn’t assure me that the political platforms and the policies and legislation that might flow from them will comport with the priorities I understand to be divine ones. Priorities like caring for the poor, healing the sick, housing the homeless, freeing the oppressed and striving for justice and peace on the earth are what help me determine how much the God to whom I am obedient is reflected in any party’s political platform.  Divine name dropping doesn't convince me to vote for someone. As a Christian, I'm more interested in how a candidate's policies will serve the ones Jesus called "the least of these."  And I'm interested to know what people of other religious traditions look for as they evaluate a party's platform.