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.