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Category: Religion In America

The Huppah and the Supreme Court: A New Year's Resolution

This post was originally published on the HuffingtonPost - Religion page

HuppahBack in 1982, a young couple came to me with an unusual request. They wanted a Jewish wedding that included a public statement acknowledging what they referred to as their “heterosexual privilege.” They felt it was important while under the huppah to recognize that they were invoking a right denied gay people by every state in the union.

Just a few years before, I had been married with the blessing of the State of Connecticut and two Reform rabbis. Not a word was said about gays, lesbians or injustice. I knew only one person who had celebrated her same sex union with a “wedding ceremony,” but my cousin Frances Fuchswas way ahead of the curve, even for California. In fact, Frances recalls that her friends, gay and straight, thought it was “a little weird.” In those days, no movement in Judaism, including my own, knowingly ordained gay people, much less sanctioned their marriages.

I told the couple that I would marry them, and that they were free to say whatever they wanted about this issue. But I would stay out of it. The truth is: I had nothing to say. In my encounter with that couple, they were the religious leaders, I, the follower.

Today, I have something to say. Hence, my (secular) New Year’s Resolution:  to challenge others as that couple challenged me. Weddings are celebrations, not only of personal milestones, but also of communal values. I will no longer squander the opportunity to lead. Over the years, what once seemed to me an incongruous addition to the wedding ritual began to feel increasingly appropriate. At the start of 2013 it has become—for me—imperative.

Why imperative? Haven’t we come far enough already? Indeed, in some segments of our society, we have witnessed an astounding transformation. All the non- Orthodox rabbinical  seminaries now ordain men and women regardless of their sexual orientation, and many rabbis perform Jewish weddings for straight and gay couples. Even the stodgy New York Times marriage section now announces same sex weddings. A growing number of citizens live in states that recognize gay marriage. And this year, for the first time, the United States Supreme Court has agreed to hear two cases involving the constitutionality of denying gay people access to the same protections and privileges accorded straight people who commit their lives to one another.

Which brings us to why establishing gay marriage as a social norm is imperative.

First, most states still do not allow gay people to marry. Where I live, my gay rabbinic colleagues routinely perform weddings by “the power vested in them by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania,” a state that will not recognize their own marriages. Furthermore, our federal law lags behind and takes precedence over the laws in states that have gay marriage. Significantly, this spring the justices will rule on a case in which the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) will come under scrutiny. That Act defines marriage as between a man and a woman for purposes of federal law. Until DOMA is overturned, same sex couples marrying in one of the states in which it is legal still do not have the rights of a spouse to access federal benefits ranging from social security to treatment of their children to immigration status to inheritance taxes to health insurance. The listgoes on for eight pages.

Consider the analogy to interracial marriage. In 1966, Gallup polls. showed only 20% of the U.S. population approved of interracial marriages. There were still 17 statesin which such unions were prohibited. In 1967, the Supreme Court declared those laws unconstitutional in Loving v. Virginia. The struggle for a racially just society required the legal breakthroughs of the civil rights era. It also required—and still requires—changing hearts and minds. As we await the Supreme Court’s decision, one that may well take its place beside Loving v. Virginia as a landmark of justice, I want to move toward that landmark on the ground, one conversation at a time, one ritual at a time, until gay marriage becomes a legal right and a social norm.

My New Year’s Resolution:  Each time I plan a wedding with a heterosexual couple, I will initiate a conversation about marriage equality. To be specific, I will suggest that they include in their service a prayer for change. The particular prayer is not important, acknowledging the issue publically is. I will also challenge my rabbinic colleagues who do not already do so to include something similar in their own wedding planning routine. Here is my version, also posted on Ritualwell.org:

As we stand under the huppah today, we give thanks that we can marry with the blessings of our rabbi, our community, our state and our federal government.

At this moment, we turn our gratitude to concern. We pray for the day when our country recognizes and honors the marriages of our gay brothers and sisters just as it recognizes and honors our own.

We pledge to contribute to _______ (fill in organization) that is working toward that end.

May there soon be heard in our land the sound of gladness and joy as loving couplesall loving couplesdance and sing and celebrate.

May that time come speedily and in our day.

Amen.

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Life of Pi: Can a Movie Make You Believe in God?

This post was originally published on the HuffingtonPost - Religion page.

Life of PiWhile there are many new films in the theaters this holiday season,Life of Pi” seemed to be required viewing for me. As an interfaith educator, how could I not see a film, whose protagonist, a boy named Pi, is born a Hindu, loves Jesus and practices Islam? While Pi’s co-star is a 450-pound carnivorous Bengal Tiger and I am not a fan of animal movies, the theme of interspirituality intrigued me. And as a person of faith, how could I pass up the opportunity to see a story that claims it will “make you believe in God”?

I went with my daughter and returned a week later to see it again with my husband. I will gladly go back a third time with anyone who will come along, if only for the magnificence of Ang Lee’s visuals, the brilliance of first-time actor Suraj Sharm, and the opportunity to hear if my companion agrees with the critics. I do not.

The reviewers seem to agree that Ang Lee’s gorgeous film, based on Yann Martel’s 1991 novel, is a stunning technological achievement. No argument there. The more sophisticated ones, however, refuse to be taken in by its alleged theology. The film “invites you to believe in all kinds of marvelous things,” says the New York Times, but “leaves you wondering if you saw anything at all.” Or to put it as Salon did, it is “radioactive hokum.”

I think the critics are missing something. The film tells a single story in two versions, only one of which is shown on the screen. At the end, it poses a question: “Which version do you prefer?” followed by the comment: “So it goes with God.” The New Yorker reviewercalled that, “the most howlingly presumptuous and vapid line of dialogue I’ve heard in a movie this year.” If I saw that exchange as the key to the meaning of the film, I might agree. And though I would not say it so arrogantly, I might also agree with the one line Twitter comment: “Ang Lee’s Life of Pi brings you closer to God the way Skittles bring you closer to rainbows."Fortunately, I do not think that is the point.

No doubt, the film does want to contrast, as Pi puts it, “dry, yeastless factuality” with the power of the imagination. On one level, the movie is—as some critics have noted—about believing in art. It is not incidental that the overall frame of the screenplay has the adult Pi telling his story to a novelist who is in search of a new plot. But the ability of stories to create transcendent meaning is just the start. I do think the movie is about God, but not the kind of God one chooses to “believe in” or not, who is featured in lush stories with animals rather than in dryer, flatter, more prosaic accounts. It is certainly not about a God who explains why people suffer and redeems all evil. This is not a God whose story one necessarily would “prefer.”

I understood the movie to be about living in relationship with the mystery at the heart of all life. Some call that mystery God, others use different names. But as the film itself reminds us, names are a tricky business. (Due to a clerical error, the tiger, Richard Parker, has a human name.) From an early age, Pi is drawn to the mystery. He reaches out to God in every language he can find, while his father, a rationalist of the New India, tries to impress upon him the value of cold, hard science. The young Pi also wants to connect with Richard Parker, at this point still a caged animal in Pi’s father’s zoo. Pi’s father does succeed in teaching him the danger of that particular longing. In the version of the story we see on film, as a result of a shipwreck, Pi finds himself on a life boat with the very tiger he both loves and fears. In awe of what soon becomes his only companion, Pi must figure out how to survive.

Richard Parker is magnificent, terrifying and inscrutable. Often, he is hiding. Pi soon despairs of ever fully taming Richard Parker, but, as Pi puts it, he tries to at least “train him.” At one point, Pi has the option to be rid of the tiger forever, but he chooses to take him back, knowing that his struggle with Richard Parker is keeping him alive. Pi wants more than to simply triumph over his companion or even to reach a détente, to endure. Pi wants a relationship.

Later in the film, Pi narrates another version of the story, not shown on the screen, one that is quite horrifying and lacks any wondrous animals. But, as Pi says, neither version of the story explains why the boat sank in the first place; neither version is without its terror. The story with the animals, presumably the “God” story, is no sweet pie-in-the-sky theology, as the critics seem to assume. The Slate critic asks: “If the tiger isn’t just a tiger but a stand-in for God or nature or the universal Other, do we still need to worry about him chomping off Pi’s arm?” I don’t know about you, but my God takes arms, not to mention whole persons, frighteningly often. This is not a simple story of the value of enchantment, a “sugar coated revelation.”

In one of the last scenes in the movie, Richard Parker reveals that Pi’s love for him is not reciprocated. In fact, he apparently has no interest in Pi at all. It is an absolutely devastating moment, one so powerfully realized that I completely forgot the tiger was only an animal, and a computer generated image at that. I wept. In the end, it is not about preferring one version or another, of “believing” in God or not believing in God. Like Pi, some people simply can’t help but see the universe as Thou, even if that Thou— at once gorgeous and terrifying—is largely indifferent to us. Nevertheless, the effort to connect sustains us.

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To Bigotry No Sanction

This post was coauthored by Seth Kreimer, Kenneth W. Gemmill Professor, University of Pennsylvania School of Law.

This post was originally published on the HuffingtonPost - Religion page.  I would love to know what you think. Please post your comments on HuffPost.

Pamela Geller's "Support Israel, Defeat Jihad" ad campaign arrived in New York subway stations this month. The campaign strives to be as clever as it is malevolent. Geller claims it is simply a pro-Israel political statement. But the ad's text is a calculated echo of Ayn Rand'sslur that Israel's opponents, and indeed all Arabs, are "primitive…savages."

Not missing the point, the New York City transit authority first rejected the ad as demeaning, only to be forced by a Federal District judge to accept it because of the First Amendment right of free speech.

The issue of free speech is, however, a red herring. The campaign aims to distract and confuse Americans. Geller has played that game before. Concern for sensitivity to victims' families served as a cover for the anti-Muslim agenda in Geller's last major initiative, the controversy she helped create around what she misnamed the "mosque at Ground Zero."This time, Geller wants to link her ad campaign and its legal battles with free speech in America and backlash in the Middle East. She claims opponents of the ads are un-American. She is wrong. Opposition to bigotry is as much a core American value as freedom of speech. It is Geller's effort to set the two at odds that flies in the face of our ideals.

Geller's ads seek to provoke the behavior she claims to fear, and to provoke enough of it to create fear in others. Like Geller's other pet project, "Stop Islamization of America,"the campaign is designed to stoke anxiety that American Muslims do not understand and support America's freedoms. Geller posts provocative ads. She then reports on her blog---with great satisfaction---any examples of Muslim Americans reacting in ways that fail to appreciate the complex, messy business of freedom of speech in this country. At this, she cries, "The sharia-ization is beginning!"

Fanatics from my faith do not represent me!In fact, major Muslim American spokesmen responded to the ad altogether appropriately. CAIR national communications director Ibrahim Hooper said, "The First Amendment grants everybody rights, including to be a racist and a bigot."But you won't find that statement reported on Geller's blog. Nor will you find the pictureof an orthodox rabbi and a Muslim protesting the ad with a sign stating "Fanatics from my faith do not represent me!"

As Jews, we regularly expect Muslim and Christian friends to denounce anti-Semitism and terrorism within their own communities. In fairness, it is our duty to join others in stepping up when Jews are the ones promulgating hate. Geller knows well that apparent support for Israel is one way to package an anti-Muslim message that makes it tricky for Jewish leaders to offer unequivocal and unified denunciations. Her tactic, however, does not seem to be paying off across the board. Even Jews who do not usually agree on matters related to Israel are refusing to be distracted. The Anti-Defamation Leaguecarries on its website a condemnation of Geller, for "consistently vilifying the Islamic faith under the guise of fighting radical Islam." On September 21, the Jewish Voice for Peace, Jews for Racial and Economic Justice and Say No!issued a statement condemning Geller's ad .The same day, the Jewish Council for Public Affairsdecried Geller's ads as "Bigoted, Divisive and Unhelpful." Rabbi Rachel Troster of Rabbis for Human Rights North Americahas spoken out, as has the president of the Union of Reform Judaism, Rabbi Rick Jacobs.

In his famous letter to the first Jewish synagogue in America, George Washington wrote that the United States government grants "to bigotry no sanction."But because our government does grant to all its citizens freedom of speech, it will protect the right of Pamela Geller to post her bigotry, just as it allows over 900 hate groups, including anti-Semitic groups, to operate. In America, the work of giving bigotry no sanction devolves on citizens. We are the ones with the liberty---and the obligation---to speak our own truths in the face of hate mongering. And Geller isn't clever enough to stop us.

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My Neighbor's Faith: Trouble Praying

This column is an excerpt from the book 'My Neighbor's Faith: Stories of Interreligious Encounter, Growth, and Transformation.'

"I envy you Jews," said the young German as he poured my morning coffee.

The year was 1980. I was the guest of a graduate student at Heidelberg University. My stay in his home was part of a month-long trip through Germany with Jews and Christians engaged in "post-Holocaust interfaith dialogue."

My host's statement surprised and bewildered me. I was just beginning my dissertation on the topic of anti-Judaism in Protestant "Old Testament" theology and I thought I knew a lot about the relationship between Jews and Christians. In fact, I was planning to devote my career to helping Christians see their complicity in the suffering of the Jews and to transcend the flaws in their theology. I could understand my host feeling sorry for us Jews. I could understand him apologizing to us. But I could not understand him envying us.

"Why in the world would you envy Jews?" I asked.

His reply changed my life.

"I envy you because it is easier for you to pray. You see, we young Germans carry the weight of what our parents and grandparents did -- or did not do -- during the war. It is hard for us to talk to God. We feel a little embarrassed." Although the conversation took place 30 years ago, I can conjure it up in an instant: the earnestness in my fellow student's voice, the clarity in his blue eyes.

I had thought, until then, that it was we Jews, the victims, who had trouble praying! There was something about the way he said it -- perhaps the phrase "a little embarrassed" -- that made it feel completely genuine. This conversation clarified for me my core belief, a very useful thing to discover at the age of 27. After that morning, I possessed an orienting idea, a place to check in regularly to see if my plans were aligned with what I believed.

I believe that we should live our lives so that our children won't be "a little embarrassed" if they want to pray. Until that morning, I thought that meant being a good daughter, a compassionate friend and a dutiful citizen. But now I saw something new: taking responsibility for the group from which I derive my identity, the group whose actions will lead my children to be proud or embarrassed before God. For me, that group was and is the Jewish people.

The immediate result of this revelation was that I changed my dissertation topic. Rather than looking at problematic Christian texts, I would study problematic Jewish writings. I would investigate the ways in which my own tradition misunderstands others rather than point a finger at the others for misunderstanding us.

That can be challenging. For example, today, when I choose to speak out about certain policies pursued by the State of Israel, colleagues -- including good friends -- e-mail me to say they disagree with my action. "You ought to be criticizing Hamas," they say. "There are enough non-Jews jumping on the bandwagon to condemn Israeli actions; we don't need rabbis doing it too!" "Besides," they often add, "however bad Israel's actions, many other countries have done much worse."

They are right, of course. But what can I do? I can learn as much as possible, consult Israelis I trust who know more than I do, and try to speak with humility. My commitment to Middle East work, like the interfaith work to which I devote most of my time, grows from my core belief to which I have tried to stay true. Being part of a community means being ready to argue with it, to critique it, to ask it to live up to its best self.

I say I do it for tikkun olam, to make the world more whole. But the deeper truth is that I do it for my daughters. They are now in their 20s, still figuring out their relationship to their Jewish heritage and to God. I want them to be able to pray without embarrassment. Although there is much to lament in the way some Christians and some Muslims have treated and continue to treat Jews, that is not my issue. My job as a Jew, as a mother, is to scrutinize my own faith tradition and my own community. Given that I have uncertain knowledge and limited power, all I can do is my best. But thanks to an encounter 30 years ago, I know what I am trying to accomplish.

This post was originally published on the HuffingtonPost - Religion page.  I would love to know what you think. Please post your comments on HuffPost.

 


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New Interfaith E-Journal Publishes Symposium on "Meaning"

The Interfaith Observer"Can you tell us how you find meaning in 1,000 words or less? You are welcome to include a picture or two."

The invitation came to me from Reverend Paul Chaffee, the editor of The Interfaith Observer, a new electronic journal launched this past September. TIO, as it is casually known, is “a monthly e-journal telling new stories, exploring new issues, identifying exemplary resources, and connecting us to each other." Reverend Chaffee comes to this work after decades of interfaith leadership. Ordained in the United Church of Christ, he was the founding executive director of the Interfaith Center at the Presidio, where he served for 17 years. His vision for this new publication makes good sense.

As he put it, “Interfaith, multireligious, multifaith – we hear these words in the news, in hundreds of new interreligious websites and blogs, and in a multitude of responses to the new religious diversity in our midst. For a novice, this can feel overwhelming. Even those who’ve labored in the interfaith vineyard for decades tend to underestimate the scope of interfaith bridge-building going on in neighborhoods around the world. For anyone wanting to learn more about the interfaith movement, its history and its role in the 21st century, its protocols and foundational documents, there is little to provide a context or identify the cream of the crop among the proliferating resources at our disposal."

I first learned about TIO when Reverend Chaffee asked my permission to include a HuffingtonPost piece I wrote in the second issue of the journal (October, 2011). I agreed, and was glad to meet Paul in November at the American Academy of Religion in San Francisco. Now I had the opportunity to write about "meaning," in 1,000 words. (If a picture is worth a 1,000 words, I guess you could say 2,000 words.)

Like all smart networkers, Paul Chaffee not only developed a symposium, he also hooked up with another electronic publication, State of Formation, whose authors are "emerging religious and ethical leaders." An "intergenerational" conversation resulted with parallel symposia on the same topic, published on both sites.

I enjoyed writing my piece and reading all of the contributions. Since I can recall the days of Protestant/Catholic/Jew, I continue to marvel at the wide range of voices included from Humanist to Mayan to Seikah.

A common thread: several of the images accompanying the articles including both the one shown above and my own pictured the author in an interfaith group protesting injustice.

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RRC "Hands on Christianity" Course - Out of the Classroom and into the Neighborhood

RRC "Hands on Christianity" Reality TourThoreau went to the woods because he wished to “live deliberately.” Fourteen years ago, Shane Claiborne and some friends moved into Kensington, an area of Philadelphia with abandoned factories and high unemployment, because they wanted to live Christianity. When asked if the intentional Christian community they created is “evangelical,” Shane responds affirmatively. “We want to spread the Kingdom of God like crazy!” Most important, the members of The Simple Way, want to do what God did. God did not save humanity from on high. Jesus moved into the neighborhood.

Students from RRC came to Kensington to learn about Christianity. During the weeks leading up to Christmas, the traditional time of Advent in the Christian calendar, seven rabbinical students are participating in a half credit course entitled “Hands on Christianity.” They have toured Kensington in a van with Shane Claiborne. They will study the four Gospels with Will O’Brien (a Simple Way ally who works for Project H.O.M.E) and Christians in the Alternative Seminary (also a local ally of the Simple Way) and they will spend a day joining the community for prayer and helping out with their Christmas store. In between, the students are organizing a new toy collection, hoping to engage the rest of the RRC community in a small way in their involvement with The Simple Way.

Hands on Christianity Students at The Simple WayDuring our tour, Shane showed us the landscape of a post-industrial slum:  the hospital where half the staff has been laid off, the challenges of accessing fresh food, the problem – of personal relevance to us after a few hours – of no public bathrooms. He also showed us the places where co-conspirators of The Simple Way were reclaiming the blighted landscape with sculpture gardens and murals, running a free medical clinic, working with people battling drug addiction. Throughout, he told his story without self aggrandizement. It was always about community, and it was not about big, splashy victories. Shane and his friends first came to Kensington as part of a dramatic take over by homeless people of an abandoned Catholic Church. The story made the newspapers. Since then, however, it has been a quieter kind of religious testimony:  rehabbing houses after a fire, creating a summer camp by closing down a street to traffic and playing with the kids, creating a collective health insurance pool with neighbors.

John Dominic Crossan, a world famous scholar of the New Testament, in Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography (Harper, San Francisco, 1995) tells about a dream he once had in which Jesus comes to him and says, “I have read your book and it is quite good. Are you ready to join me and my vision?” Shane Claiborne tells how he had dinner with Crossan once. “As we shared with him our feeble attempts to follow after the peasant revolutionary he wrote about, his eyes gleamed with excitement.”

As we embarked on this hands-on learning experience with Christians who take a hands-on approach to their faith, our eyes, too, were gleaming.

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A Tale of One Mosque and Two News Stories

This post was originally published on the HuffingtonPost - Religion page.  I would love to know what you think. Please post your comments on HuffPost.

Islamic Center of Murfreesboro

This is the tale of one city, one Islamic Center and two news stories. An iconic photo, taken a year and a half ago, represents the first story: a plywood sign announcing "Future Site of the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro," spray painted over with the words, "Not Welcome." That story put the town on the map. CNN produced a 43-minute documentary that aired this past April. The Daily Show featured it in a segment "Tennessee No Evil." Faiz Zhakir, vice president of the Center for American Progress and one of the researchers behind Fear, Inc., called it "ground zero of Muslim bashing in America."

The second story, garnering almost no national attention, is represented by a picture taken last week of 10 individuals with shovels, a classic American groundbreaking scene. Even CNN gave only a brief notice to The Islamic Center of Murfreesboro's breaking of ground on Sept. 29. The stories belong together and they deserve to be widely told.

In the spring of 2008, Imam Ossama Bahloul, Ph.D., a graduate of the prestigious Al-Azhar University in Cairo, chose to turn down a bigger job offer and opt for a quiet life in the city of Murfreesboro, Tenn., 35 miles south of Nashville. With a population of 100,000, Murfreesboro, according to its website, is the fastest growing city in the state, as well as the most livable. The 250 Muslim families, some having lived there for almost 30 years, were outgrowing their small meeting space; Friday prayers were spilling into the parking lot. In 2009 the group purchased a 15-acre plot and in May, 2010 Rutherford County Regional Planning Commission approved plans for an Islamic Center whose eventual size might reach 52,960 square feet.

As soon as the sign announcing the future site of the Islamic Center went up, spray paint defaced it. Vandals tore down a second sign. In July, several hundred residents marched in protest against the mosque. In August, things got worse. Police deemed a fire on the site as arson, and gunshots were heard nearby. The same month, Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, then running for governor, spoke against the mosque. "You could even argue whether being a Muslim is actually a religion, or is it a nationality, way of life, a cult, whatever you want to call it."

In September, 17 land owners sued Rutherford County, claiming that the county should have investigated the substantive beliefs of the Islamic Center before approving its plans. During the trial, plaintiffs called to the stand Frank Gaffney, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense under President Ronald Reagan, as an expert on sharia. "I don't hold myself out as an expert on sharia law," Gaffney told the court. "But I have talked a lot about that as a threat." Gaffney testified that "Sharia is the enemy-threat doctrine we face today." They asked the court to consider Islam as a political system or ideology, not just a religion.

The U.S. Justice Department disagreed. It filed a friend of the court brief in which it explained that "every U.S. court addressing the question has treated Islam as a religion for purposes of the First Amendment and other federal laws. ... Islam falls plainly within the understanding of a religion for constitutional and other federal legal purposes, and qualifies as a religion under the various tests courts have developed." The brief even quoted a dissenting opinion by Justice Scalia (joined by Justices Relmquist, Thomas and Kennedy) in favor of a public display of the Ten Commandments that noted that Islam, along with Christianity and Judaism, is one of "the three most popular religions in the United States," and that "these three monotheistic faiths account for 97.7% of all believers."

The Justice Department also argued that the county would be in danger of violating the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act that Congress passed in 2000 in response to findings that "religious institutions in general, and minority faiths in particular, frequently face overt and subtle discrimination in the application of land use and zoning regulations."

In May of this year, after the CNN documentary was aired, the judge ruled against the plaintiffs and on Aug. 30, the judge upheld his decision: "Those who are adherents to Islam are entitled to pursue their worship in the United States just as are those who are adherents to more universally established faiths (in our community)" the judge wrote. He continued, "The plaintiffs have established that there may be extremist members within the group of worshipers even here in Rutherford County, but that does not change the fact that Islam exists as a religion apart from the extremist philosophies."

Last month, I visited Murfreesboro as part of Clergy Beyond Borders' caravan that included two imams, an evangelical minister and another rabbi. We were invited to speak at Middle Tennessee State University, the largest undergraduate institution in the state, by the Muslim Students Association, the Jewish Student Union and the Wesley Student Association. The local NBC news carried a two-minute segment about the event. We were heartened that the friendly audience we met considered themselves the mainstream of their community. The protestors who had made the news, they told us, were a small, if vocal, minority.

Despite initial difficulty finding a contractor and a recent bomb threat, the Muslims we met in Murfreesboro seemed confident and optimistic. Lema Sbenaty, a 20-year-old pre-med student at MTSU who grew up in the town, was featured in the CNN documentary. Articulate, self possessed and beautiful, Lema organized our visit with her fellow students. She told us that she attended every day of the six week trial, eventually laughing at the absurdity of some of the attacks. Lema was happy with the court's decision, but not surprised, having received hundreds of emails from non-Muslims she never met, telling her they were her allies. She was looking forward to celebrating the ground breaking.

Like Lema, Imam Bahloul also looked to the future with hope. He too received messages of solidarity from around the country. Many included contributions for the proposed Islamic Center, sometimes in the form of a $10 bill. One well-meaning Christian in Texas offered the imam land on his ranch to build the mosque. "I had to explain to him that we could not accept his generous offer. The families in our congregation live here in Murfreesboro. And we are not planning to move."

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Taking Interfaith on the Road

Clergy Beyond Borders Caravan for Reconciliation

It was like living in a joke. “There was a rabbi, an imam and a minister…“ – But we did not walk into any bars. Instead, we walked into churches, synagogues and mosques, all part of a 15 day tour from Washington D.C. through the southern states, up to Michigan and back through Ohio and Pennsylvania organized by Clergy Beyond Borders. I joined the caravan in Atlanta and flew home from Nashville, participating in programs in two churches, three mosques, one synagogue and a university, all in four days. We also met with legislators in the Tennessee House of Representatives and with a leader of the Southern Baptist Convention. Our audiences included those who eagerly anticipated our visit to their town and others who, like the gentleman in the mosque in Nashville, had just “come for morning prayers, smelled coffee, and stayed to learn.”

The trip was the brainchild of Imam Yahya Hendi, a Palestinian American, the founder of the Washington DC based national group that sponsored the trip. We called ourselves a Caravan of Reconciliationand presented a program titled, From Fear to Faith.In every place we spoke, we found those for whom our message was welcome support, others for whom it was novel but exciting, and still others who challenged us with hard questions. We also found open hearts and much evidence to inspire hope. Indeed, the narrative that emerged was neither all rosy, nor all grim. Many Americans are suffering and confused; fear is a factor in our country, one that can easily be manipulated and turned into darker emotions. Religion, we saw vividly, can certainly be part of the problem. Our message:  our religious communities can be part of the solution.

Imam Yahya would begin each talk by warning his audience that he had learned to preach from a Southern Baptist. This always brought a big laugh, as did his comment, "You may have noticed that I have an accent." He would then go on. "When they hear my accent, people ask me where I am from. So I tell them. I am from dust." Long pause. "I am a dustonian." Laughter. "From dust you come and to dust you will return. It is in the Bible and in the Qur'an. We share that belief." Hushed silence. Later, toward the end of his talk, the imam would sometimes circle back to the idea that we are all fellow dustonians. "That is my politics, that is my theology." Simple? Perhaps. But very effective, and a good place to begin to connect. Rabbi Gerry Serottawould also stress, each and every stop, that we were clergy beyond borders, not clergy without borders. We treasure our differences and the borders that circumscribe our unique faith communities.

Rabbi Amy Eilberg who travelled with the group for the first week, spoke powerfully to an audience at Masjeed AlFarooq, the largest mosque in Atlanta. She reported having spoken earlier that day at a synagogue where her message had been that she did not consider Jews the most victimized of people in America. “That dubious distinction goes to Muslims.” During the question period, a young Muslim man challenged her a bit angrily, “How could Jews possibly think they are oppressed?” Instead of responding that she agreed with him, she asked him, in the most loving way possible, not to assume he knows how the world looks to a Jew, just as she would not question the reality a Muslim experiences, nor would she credit the view of a non Muslim who presumed to do so. Heads nodded all around and the questioner himself seemed visibly moved. (The entire program is available on video here.)

Reverend Steve Martin, an evangelical preacher and a life long resident of Tennessee, the executive director of the New Evangelical Partnernship for the Common Good told audience about his ministry as a documentary film maker.  He spoke of the friends he made making a film about Muslims in Appalaachia and how he worried, after the attacks of September 11th, how the people he had grown to love would fare in this new moment in history. He also talked about another film he had made, one about theologians in Nazi Germany. The analogy was subtle and gentle, but important. “As a Christian,” he would say, “I am concerned when my religious tradition causes damage.” In Chattanooga, 800 church goers, many of whom came that morning as part of their Sunday routine, rose to their feet and gave a standing ovation to Imam Yahya. That experience was theirs only because the pastor of the church was an old friend of Reverend Steve. Later, a much smaller but still significant group returned for two hours of intense questions and answers. Over coffee, I asked as many people as I could, “Do you have Muslims in this city?” Most said they were not sure. A few had heard that there was a small group and that they were planning to build a mosque.

The issue of Muslim integration into society plays itself out these days through zoning battles over construction or expansion of mosques. I asked the pastor of the church if he had heard anything about the plans for a mosque in Chattanooga. He responded, “I am looking into it. I plan to try to contact them and see what I can do to support the community. Some of my colleagues and I want to let people know that if anyone has a problem with Muslims’ plans to workship, they should take it up with us.” In Chattanooga, that will count for a lot.

In my next post, I will talk about our visits to two communities that have faced zoning battles over mosques, Alpharetta, Georgia and Murfreesboro, Tennessee. (For a preview of that program, watch here:  Panel Promotes Religious Diversity)

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The Good News About American Islamophobia

This post was originally published on the HuffingtonPost - Religion page.  I would love to know what you you think. Please post your comments on HuffPost.

While meeting to prepare my taxes, my accountant asked me, "What's new and good in your line of work?" She knows that I am a long time interfaith educator and that in the last few years I have been working in coalitions with members of other faith communities to combat religious prejudice against Muslims in this country.

Vaccine for Islamophobia

Despite much to deplore and enormous challenges ahead, I could answer that there is some good news about Islamophobia. Obviously, the good news needs to be heard in the context of the bad news, bad both for Muslims and for the rest of us who care about America. Recent reports by the Pew Research Center (August), the Center for American Progress (August) and the Brookings Institution and the Public Religion Research institute (September) all document the bad news. More than half of all Muslims under the age of 30 report being the victims of religious intolerance in the last year (Pew). In the last decade, seven foundations have poured more than $40 million into efforts to drum up fear of Muslims in America (CAP). Forty-seven percent of Americans believe Islam is incompatible with American values (Brookings). Clearly, religious prejudice against Muslims continues to be a concern -- a serious concern. At the same time, each report also includes the seeds of some good news.

First, the Brookings study, "What It Means to be an American: Attitudes in an Increasingly Diverse America Ten Years after 9/11," reveals that most Americans have very little direct experience of Muslims. The majority have no opportunity to speak to a Muslim, even occasionally. What's good about that? In fact, it helps explain findings such as the Gallup Poll that placed Muslims as the most disliked religious group in America. We tend to dislike what we do not know. Robert Putnam describes the opposite situation as the "Aunt Susan effect." In his book "American Grace," Putnam observes how positive feelings develop as people get to know the "other" as friends and eventually family members.

With the exception of African American Muslims, Muslims are part of a recent immigrant community. The Pew study, "Muslim Americans: No Sign of Growth in Alienation or Extremism," reports that 63 percent of Muslim Americans are first-generation immigrants to the U.S., with 45 percent having arrived since 1990. (Strikingly, 81 percent of Muslim Americans are citizens of the U.S., including 70 percent of those born outside the U.S., a higher percentage than most other immigrant groups.) Muslims simply have not had the time to integrate into American society, but there is evidence, also in that study, that the process is well under way.

The Brookings report broke down responses by age of the informants. Americans ages 18-29 were twice as likely as those ages 65 and older to know Muslims personally. In each category, the young are moving in the direction Robert Putnam would predict will lead to better news. The future looks more promising than the past.

Second, most Americans do not know much about Islam. Once again, this can be the good news. In the Brookings study, people were asked how much they believe they know about Islam. Fourteen percent said they know a lot about the religious beliefs and practices of Muslims, 57 percent said they know a little, and 29 percent said they know nothing at all. The group that was most likely to say they know a lot about Muslims was, interestingly, Americans who identify with the Tea Party movement (21 percent).

What they know, unfortunately, was provided by a small cadre of well funded scholars, bloggers and media personalities, in particular, those on Fox News. The Center for American Progress recently documented the effort to shape the perception of Americans about Islam through an "echo chamber" of recycled information and misinformation. "Fear, Inc.: The Roots of the Islamophobia Network in America," shows how movements like the one to ban so-called "Sharia law" are created. A "solution in search of a problem," state legislation proposing to keep Islamic law from superseding American law did not emerge out of spontaneous grassroots concern. In fact, according to a recent article in the New York Times, one of the chief authors of this legislation confessed that "if this law passed in every state it would not have served its purpose." The purpose is to stir up suspicion and controversy, not to actually pass legislation that the author himself knows is unconstitutional as well as unnecessary.

As people learn more about the work of this small group and their funders, we will be in a better position to offer a counter narrative. The good news lies in the more than 80 percent of Americans who know little or nothing about Islam and know that they know little or nothing about it. Americans are evenly divided over the question of whether Islam and democracy are congenial, but the question is flawed. It presumes a static entity called "Islam." Like other great religious traditions, Islam is evolving and multidimensional. Neither Roman Catholicism nor Judaism were, in essence, "democratic," but American versions of both of those traditions became part of the fabric of American religious life, as will American Islam. Again, this has already begun to happen.

This brings us to the third piece of good news, the outpouring of support for Muslims by their sisters and brothers in other religious communities in America. On Sept. 8, I stood proudly, shoulder-to-shoulder, with representatives of 26 national religious organizations, organized by the Islamic Society of North America. We said we refused to allow our communities to be victims of campaigns of misinformation. We can also use the Internet. Around the country, people commemorated 9/11 with formal programs and through simple acts of friendship.

Could I tell a darker story today? Of course. Should we be complacent? Far from it. The bad news is that there are people waking up early in the morning to take advantage of Americans' ignorance about Islam and to fill the void with fear. The good news is that others are determined to wake up earlier still and help Americans live the best of our country's values.

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