Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Dignity of Difference: Interfaith Learning in Rochester

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Praying in the Midst of Rubble

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

From Survivor to Thriver - Combatting Sexual Assault on Campuses

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

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

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

Sexual Assault is not About Sex

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

Sexuality and Spirituality

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spiritual Consequences of Sexual Assault

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

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

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

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

Spiritual Care of Perpetrators

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, February 22, 2013

Life of Pi – Contemporary Scripture in 3D

This coming Sunday evening is the annual Academy Awards extravaganza and the film, Life of Pi is up for 11 of them.  I read the book Life of Pi when it first came out ten years ago and loved it, especially the narrative of the protagonist’s journey through Hinduism, Christianity and Islam.  I was somewhat reluctant to see the film because films almost always disappoint when the book was really good, but to my delight, this film is very nearly as good as the book.  The Hindu Christian dialogue group here in Rochester decided to see the film and to use it as the basis for our February discussion.  I wondered as I watched the film how we Christians and Hindus might react differently to it, and whether our different religious perspectives, formed by different narratives and sustained by different practices and rituals, would impact how we interpreted the film. 

We had a meandering discussion of the film, surprisingly not focusing much on which of the two endings was “right” or which version of the survival tale we thought was the “real” one.  Having read a number of reviews of this film and accompanying comments, I notice that agnostic/atheist/humanist folks tend to prefer the “humanist” story, the second version that Pi tells to the Japanese insurance agents at the end, while religious people are much more comfortable with either story and with the ability to choose which story they want to “believe.”  For religious people, the “truth” is not based on empirical facts – was Pi in the boat with the Bengal tiger or was he actually alone and the Bengal tiger then represents aspects of his own inner self?  In our dialogue group, most of us are “religious” - Christians and practicing Hindus- so the idea that a story might be metaphorical while conveying “truth” is not difficult for any of us to swallow. 

We all could agree that the second story, the one where Pi is alone in the boat, is not really different from the first story, where Pi is surviving the 227 days at sea alongside a predatory Bengal tiger because we can accept the idea that the Bengal tiger, “Richard Parker” is symbolic of Pi’s inner “demons” or inner impulses towards aggression, domination, power and ruthlessness.  All religious traditions provide ways for human beings to conquer their own ego, to learn to tame the ego’s insatiable need for gratification and tendency towards aggression, so as to survive in society.  Either “ending” of the Pi story resonates for religious people, one providing a well crafted myth that explains the human condition in metaphorical terms, the other offering a more stripped down, factual account of the basic human existential crisis of survival.   Oddly enough, for religious people, both versions of the story are true and equally believable. 

For the Christians in our group, the story of Pi was reminiscent of the book of Job in the Hebrew Scriptures.  Pi, like Job, lost everything that mattered in the world to him.  Home, family, personal safety and well being – all gone in an instant and the survivor left to manage on the basis of his own wits and reason.  Like Job, Pi remained faithful to God throughout the ordeal, even when he was most emaciated and distressed, hungry, weak and near death.  And, like the story of Job, in the end, Pi, who lost everything in the shipwreck that took his family, is restored with a wife and family of his own, in the “new world” of Canada where he finally arrived after his rescue off of the Mexican beach.  

The protagonist in the film, the adult Pi who recounts the amazing story of his experience at sea with the Richard Parker, the Bengal tiger, tells the Canadian author to whom he offers the story that his tale would make him believe in God.  Pi, a Hindu Christian Muslim, is devout and faithful to God in many of God’s manifestations and is very much aware of the presence of God with him throughout the ordeal.  Both the Christians and the Hindus in our dialogue group could resonate with Pi’s faith in God and his resilience in the face of fearful challenges because of that faith.  Pi’s approach to the world is one of wonder and awe, even at those aspects of creation and the created order that are most brutal and threatening.  Pi is always sure of the existence of God so even when his world disintegrates he has the inner ability to survive against all odds.

Where the Christians and Hindus in our group did see things differently was the portrayal of Pi as a Hindu Christian Muslim.  For Hindus, the idea that the protagonist could simultaneously be a practioner/believer of three major faith traditions was not at all surprising.  Hindus are the original “pluralists.”  They have no trouble accepting the idea that one person could identify himself in all three traditions, since Hinduism recognizes millions of manifestations of God and contains within it such enormous diversity of belief and practice that for a person to take on Christianity and Islam on top of Hindu beliefs and practices does not pose any theological, philosophical or practical problems. The Christians in the group made note that our tradition does not allow for quite such multiple belonging, because the theological claims of Christianity are sufficiently exclusive that it is difficult to claim to be both Christian and something else.    Our Hindu members say “We’re all going to the same place, we are all worshipping the same God, we just use different methods to do so.”  Christians who consider themselves theological pluralists can agree with that Hindu perspective, but also recognize that much of the Christian world is less able to take such an expansive, pluralistic stance. Indeed, Christians are more likely to point out real differences of belief that make it difficult for most Christians to straddle more than one religious tradition at the same time.  Hinduism, a religion marked by diverse and varying practices supported by a sophisticated philosophical world view is more able to manage both/and thinking and “double belonging” while Christianity, with its tendency to emphasize right belief – orthodoxy- is less tolerant of multiple belonging.  

That Life of Pi has been so popular is testament to the global interfaith awakening that is happening in our modern world.  As Diana Butler Bass has written (Christianity After Religion) we are in a period of a Fourth Great Awakening and this one is global and interfaith.  Life of Pi exemplifies this new interfaith consciousness as it features a hero who straddles three major faith traditions, finding wisdom and strength and value in all three.  The fact that he intentionally identifies himself with all three also suggests that he understands the differences between them and finds richness in those differences.  He doesn't homogenize the traditions - he partakes of the nuances of each one.  

The Life of Pi is a compelling and haunting film.  There are multiple layers of meaning in every scene.  For people who consider themselves religious in whatever tradition, it is particularly powerful as it captures the raw brutality of the worst of human nature while simultaneously celebrating the salvific power of religious faith to triumph over the death fearing norm of biological existence.   Whatever the Academy decides on Sunday night, Life of Pi is an important and powerful film, a latter day piece of “scripture” conveying time honored truths about human beings and their “God.” 

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.