Terrorism Has No Religion

I’ve been sadly and silently following developments in Manchester after the tragic suicide bombing. Today I saw an interview with Saima Alvi, Vice-Chair of the British Muslim Heritage Centre. She made the point — calmly and eloquently — that terrorism has no religion.

This reminded me of Barack Obama, who knew the power of words and steadfastly refused to connect the words “terrorism” and “Islam.” Terrorists have nothing to do with Islam; they merely appropriate words and symbols from that religion of peace in order to justify their heinous acts.

Mrs. Alvi was interviewed by Sky News in the bright sunshine of St. Ann’s Square on May 25. She went on to talk about her 16-year-old daughter. She said her daughter wears a hijab (head scarf), and when her daughter came home yesterday she said everyone had been staring at her. She asked, “Why were they staring at me, Mummy?” Mrs. Alvi explained that her daughter is naïve and didn’t understand how the suicide bombing had increased tensions. “But what’s that got to do with me?” her daughter asked, genuinely puzzled.

There’s a point of insight here. To me (a white, non-Muslim American), a person who would blow up dozens of innocent strangers, many of them children, is a different species — almost non-human. I find it incomprehensible. So do most British Muslims. Like the 16-year-old girl being stared at because she wears a head scarf, most British Muslims consider terrorists to be a different species having nothing to do with them. Terrorists disguise themselves as Muslims, but they are not, for they have no regard for human life.

I wish it were that simple. The concept of radicalisation complicates matters. Terrorist ideology tries to take the kernel of something noble in human nature and twist it to the bad.

As a student of world religion, I would say that at the core of Islam is strong faith and ecstatic love for Allah and his prophet Muhammad, plus a rich culture and set of ethical guidelines. Terrorist ideology corrupts these things by mixing in an element of violent fanaticism.

I understand the concept behind the British government’s Prevent programme. I can also see its flaws. Some people who implement Prevent don’t really understand the nature of religious experience in general, nor Islam in particular. They tend to view a burgeoning interest in religion as something dangerous, a symptom of radicalisation.

In truth, it’s quite natural that many young people (including Muslims) will have conversion experiences which make them more religious, deeply religious. That in itself is a good thing, not bad. What’s needed is a clearer understanding that genuine religious feeling can be corrupted by bad ideas.

I read the full debate on Prevent from 01 February 2017 in the House of Commons, which shows a surprising degree of accord among both Conservative and Labour MPs that the Prevent programme leads to alienation and mistrust. The hope is that some less draconian, less Big Brother-ish means can be found to address extremist influence, without imposing a statutory duty on teachers and other professionals to inform on children who show vague signs of what is subjectively perceived as radicalisation.

A programme like Prevent (or something better) will meet with greater acceptance if it can develop further insight into the nature of religious experience, and the type of conversion experiences which many young Muslims are bound to have. The goal should be to support the authentic practice of strong religious faith, but to separate out (through critical discussion) the bad ideas which terrorists bring in. This is a more subtle approach which does not suspect or denigrate Muslim religion, but which tries to counter the spread of bad ideas which are not at their core Muslim religious ideas, but merely terrorist political ideas.

Terrorism is constantly in the news — on loop both literally and figuratively — so it cannot help being discussed. By all means outlaw terrorism, but not discussion of it. In the aforementioned debate, Hon. Lucy Allan said:

The Government naturally have a duty to protect the public, and they are seeking to discharge that duty through the Prevent strategy. We all want to see extremism tackled, and the intention of Prevent is, in theory, to stop young people being drawn into terrorism and to protect them from extremist views that might render them more susceptible to radicalisation. We get into more difficult territory, however, when we start to tackle belief, ideas and the expression of political and religious views. The whole issue then becomes a great deal more complicated. We could find ourselves in a situation in which the Government decide which views are too extreme and debate can be shut down, so that issues that are better discussed and challenged openly are driven underground.

That is all before anyone has even done anything. Prevent is operating in a pre-crime space, which sounds positively Orwellian. That is at the heart of some of the concerns being expressed about the Prevent duty. Our schools need to be places where young people can discuss any issue at all and develop the ability to see extremist ideologies for what they are. We need to help young people develop the resilience to challenge those ideologies, and if we expose them to only the views that the Government find acceptable, we deny them the opportunity to challenge alternative views and fail to equip them with the ability to think critically and learn how to exercise judgment.

Of the many problems with Prevent, I would like to focus on one in particular: that strong religious faith may be mistaken for (or conflated with) “pre-radicalisation” or “pre-crime.”

As I will shortly discuss, it is not uncommon for a young person to have a conversion experience which takes the form of a personal encounter with a loving God. No matter what his or her religious background (and this also happens to those raised as atheists), such an experience is certainly to be valued and treasured. It is often an ecstatic experience.

I think that genuine spiritual ecstasy can have a radicalising effect on young minds, if it is not accompanied by wisdom in philosophy. Peace Studies should be part of Prevent or similar programmes. Peace Studies is a universal course of study which can help anyone — whether Muslim, Christian, agnostic, or what-have-you — to live in peace and harmony with his or her neighbours, and with the world at large. This is what God wants of us, for all of us to live in peace. Most secular thinkers also favour peace.

Wars are a dreadful abomination and corruption. They should be eliminated, and one day they will be eliminated. But if human nature has not yet been perfected to the extent that it can completely eliminate wars, then let the wars be confined to conflict between combatants in war zones. To intentionally target civilian non-combatants — whether this is done by terrorist groups or government forces — is utterly wrong.

My point to those fulfilling statutory duties under Prevent is this: Don’t look on strong religious faith as something bad or dangerous. Look on it as something which, for many young people, is a natural process of awakening which may manifest as conversion, or as intensification of a faith which had previously lain dormant. (See this article in the Guardian for more about religious conversion via psychologist William James.)

One possible scenario for a Muslim youth is that he or she will grow up wanting to be as much like other (non-Muslim) children as possible. So, he or she may not place much emphasis on faith. But at some point in young adulthood, he/she may undergo conversion to a more active form of faith, including regular prayer, religious garb, and more meticulous observance of dietary restrictions. These changes may be precipitated or intensified by a religious experience of the type catalogued by William James — the kind of religious experience which is a common thread among many different religions. At the core of this experience may be awareness of a personal, loving God, and a sense of ecstatic union.

Faith is not the problem, religion is not the problem, ecstatic love for Allah is not the problem; the problem comes when young people whose faith is not yet mature and tempered by wisdom in philosophy or Peace Studies are told by terrorist recruiters that their faith justifies the killing of people of a different faith, or no faith at all.

I’m not wild about the government telling people how to think about religion; but to the extent this is done, it should at least be based on a more subtle understanding. I realize there are bound to be problems when government tries to distinguish between “authentic” religious ideas and terrorist political ideas. But once government has gotten into that messy business, it needs all the help it can get to sort the tangle.

In the same debate in which Hon. Lucy Allan voiced incisive criticism of Prevent, Hon. Byron Davies stuck up for the programme:

The importance of the Prevent strategy was made clear in the other place in 2016. I draw attention to Channel, which is one part of the broader Prevent agenda. It is an intensive, one-to-one mentoring programme that challenges violent views through the de-programming and rewiring of an individual.

This view, in which the human being is seen as a kind of robot which — when it malfunctions by adopting ideas considered undesirable — is in need of de-programming or rewiring, reflects a certain secular, scientific, or technocratic mindset which is largely hostile to religion. Members of many minority sects have suffered at the hands of those who felt justified in trying to “de-program” them of religious beliefs which posed no danger, and which were sincerely arrived at by the practitioners themselves.

De-programming as a proposed solution to the problem of radicalisation evokes the Orwellian world of IngSoc, and is characteristic of what’s already problematic about Prevent in its present form. The same arguments used in the past to justify aggressive de-programming of non-violent religious minorities are now resurfacing to justify aspects of Prevent: namely, that the attacks on freedom of thought and freedom of belief are justified under the broad rubric of “safeguarding the vulnerable” — that is, a “duty of care” argument.

Duty of care is clear when a school teacher knows that a child is being beaten or sexually abused, or is becoming addicted to heroin; it is far less clear when a child is merely suspected of having become more deeply religious — which in some cases is all that’s happened.

If the teacher’s own beliefs are Christian or Secular Humanist, the teacher may read into a child’s newfound or intensified love for Islam something sinister and dangerous which is not actually present. While it’s true that some terrorists claim to be motivated by religion, most religious practitioners — even those of deep faith and orthodox belief — are not terrorists. It is therefore inappropriate (to say the least) to treat people whose only “crime” is deep religious faith as if they were terrorists-in-training.

Some may say that since I am not Muslim, it is the height of folly for me to weigh in on these matters. But as a student of peace and a person of faith, I feel it’s my duty to share what I’ve learned in life. I am not a government bureaucrat or any kind of authority figure; I’m simply sharing my personal view in a time of trouble. And my view is this: Love God, be passionate in your love of God, be ecstatic in your love of God, be certain in your faith; but don’t let anyone tell you that God wants you to kill or maim other human beings in the name of faith; for this is a terrible corruption and not at all what God wants of us. No one is more anti-Muslim than the terrorist.

There’s a famous novel by American writer J.D. Salinger called Catcher in the Rye. One passage goes: “The mark of the immature man is that he wants to die nobly for a cause, while the mark of the mature man is that he wants to live humbly for one.”

If your religious conversion or spiritual awakening is genuine, lasting, and true, then it should make you want to live humbly for a cause, not die blowing up your fellow human beings. You can have strong, ecstatic faith, yet also balance that with a mature understanding, so that you recognize the presence of God in all humanity and would never consider killing others of a different faith, nor would you try by force to convert them to your own beliefs. This principle applies not just to Muslims, but also to would be Crusaders.

The goal of programmes like Prevent should never be to discourage strong faith or religious study, but to help young people temper their faith with wisdom, tolerance, and ideals of peace. I feel that wisdom, tolerance, and ideals of peace are fully consistent with Islam. So there need be no conflict provided we view things in a proper perspective. We need to develop the insight that faith is not bad, religion is not bad, only the problem comes when people bring in bad ideas, mixing them with the good.

You can have the most delicious sweetmeats which are absolutely delightful and made from the purest ingredients — but if someone mixes in arsenic then what was good becomes completely bad and poisonous. Pure love of God is good, but if someone mixes in the idea that out of devotion to God we have to kill dozens, or hundreds, or thousands of people, then this kind of philosophy is Satan’s philosophy, not God’s philosophy.

I don’t claim to have the answer. Solutions to society’s problems will come from many different quarters. As a sympathetic observer, I do think it’s possible for someone to be British to the core, Muslim to the core, deeply religious, yet 100% against terrorism. For some people, this is the ideal.

There are also geopolitical causes of terrorism, as well as problems with our definitions of terrorism. Some people look at the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and feel that Western nations are the terrorists, dropping bombs on innocent civilians. So we can say there is a vicious cycle: War leads to terrorism and terrorism leads to war.

There’s an important distinction between causation and justification. Terrorism is never justified. But in looking for the root causes of domestic terrorism, we are not wrong to see foreign wars as an aggravating factor. This fact should not become a political football or part of the emotional “blame game.” Nor does this fact automatically lead to the conclusion that Western nations should play no role whatsoever in overseas conflicts. But Western nations must tread carefully, lest they be drawn into a conflict which they cannot solve, and where their use of military force only adds to senseless loss of life, or leads to abuses such as torture.

The problems of war and terrorism are intractable; that’s why we need Peace Studies to help us find long-term solutions to the cycle of violence. So much effort goes into planning for war, budgeting for war, gearing up for war, studying for war. If we put even half as much effort into Peace Studies, gradually we could sow the seeds of peace, and eventually these seeds would germinate.

Peace is not easy to arrive at. This is exactly why the field of Peace Studies has arisen. In order to achieve something difficult, we need to study the problem and begin visualizing the means by which we can solve it. If we just look quickly and say “Peace is too difficult, let us return to war” then we can never solve the problem. So let us devote ample resources to the problem of achieving peace, just as we have already devoted massive resources to the continued waging of war. If we never develop the vision and imagination needed to achieve peace, then we will continue to suffer the twin tragedies of war and terrorism.

Returning to the topic of Prevent: Any insights into the Muslim religious experience will be fairly useless without a human connection based on honesty and trust. Where government programmes have had success, it’s probably due to individuals who made that human connection and were able to act as teachers, mentors, or positive role models. Where government bureaucrats and behavioural psychologists devise leaflets to be covertly directed at the Muslim population en masse, I doubt this has a good effect.

The spirit in which a thing is done makes all the difference. Broadly speaking, counter-terrorism comes under the heading of social control. The notion of fighting terrorism by practising behaviour modification on British Muslims, pressuring them to conform to mainstream views, seems ill-fated because it smacks of inauthenticity, fails to address individual concerns, and may lack an underlying sense of warmth and caring. At its worst, the subtle message of Prevent is “Tone it down or be singled out for counselling” — but such counselling may be culturally insensitive and lead to further alienation.

According to Frances Webber, Vice-Chair of the Institute of Race Relations, “The government’s counter-radicalisation policy is trying to channel thought, speech and ideas into a fairly narrow concept of what’s acceptable, and everything else is becoming potentially ‘pre-criminal’.”

Insight, compassion, and caring need to be practised on an individual level to effect positive change. There must be concern for the person, rather than the desired social control outcome, e.g. “I’m here to make sure you don’t become a terrorist.” I think approaching people with that thinly veiled social control agenda is an instant turn-off. But if you’re a good teacher, mentor, role model, or simply friend, you can help someone make good choices — not by manipulating them, but by just being there for them — showing them that Britain is a beautiful place to be a Muslim, and it doesn’t involve hating anyone or bombing anything.

Michael Howard

The views expressed are my own, and do not represent any other person or organization.


Sidebar: Heritage Radio AM – Manchester

While researching this article, I checked out the BMHC website and learned that they also run a radio station. I was really curious what a Muslim radio station in Manchester would sound like. I only listened for about an hour, but found it quite interesting:

http://tunein.com/radio/Heritage-Radio-AM-s272597/

As a student of world religion and world music, I enjoyed the mix of music, prayers, and adverts. (“Remember, if it’s plumbing, it will be available at Cheetham Plumbing!”)

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Father Tom, The God Squad, and Sri Chinmoy

Monsignor Thomas J. Hartman was known affectionately as “Father Tom.” He was a super nice guy who gave up his childhood dream of playing baseball to gain a Doctor of Ministry degree from the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley. Later in life, when he developed Parkinson’s disease, he raised enough money to found the Thomas Hartman Center for Parkinson’s Research, which opened in 2013. I can’t believe he passed away just a few days ago. (See this New York Times obituary.)

He was a champion of ecumenism and interfaith harmony who shared a spotlight with his good friend Rabbi Marc Gellman. Together, they formed “The God Squad” — a dynamic duo that team-preached religious tolerance and high ethics.

Father Tom and Sri Chinmoy met on a number of occasions. They became friends and even played tennis together, back in the day. In 2001, Sri Chinmoy honoured The God Squad in one of his lifting ceremonies. Rabbi Gellman recalls:

There are days when my hope wanes and when doubts corrode my faith. On those days I say that faith without reason is blind. But there are other days when I see miraculous things, and on those days I believe that faith without miracles is empty. When I awaken I am never certain what kind of day it will be. However, today I am standing behind Sri Chinmoy. On this day I remember the miraculous day of May 23, 2001, when Sri Chinmoy lifted me, my pal Father Tom Hartman, and a platform up into the air. Together—with the platform—we weighed more than 500 pounds (I had a very heavy cell phone in my pocket!). Sri Chinmoy took a seat underneath us and pushed up. With his two 70-year-old arms, he lifted us up into the air. Fourteen years earlier Sri had lifted 7,040 pounds with his left arm. Fifteen years earlier, at age 55, he lifted 7,063 pounds—with his right arm. Sri Chinmoy lifted airplanes and elephants and over 7,000 people. In fact, we were told Sri had postponed lifting Al Gore that day in order to lift us, the God Squad. Sri believed in “Lifting Up the World With a Oneness Heart.” It was part of his belief that “the physical and the spiritual must go together. They cannot be separated.” The weightlifter and body builder Bill Pearl said, “I have learned from Sri Chinmoy that the size of the arm does not make the man; the size of the heart makes the man. Nobody on earth has done what Sri Chinmoy has done.”

— Marc Gellman, “Are Miracles Real?” Newsweek

A year earlier, Father Tom had written the introduction to a compilation of Sri Chinmoy’s writings, The Wisdom of Sri Chinmoy. Here’s some of what he said:

Sri Chinmoy’s deep love for God is known worldwide. Long revered as a spiritual force for peace at the United Nations, this humble God-directed author asks people of this planet to look within, to rediscover the essential truths of spirituality that have so blessed his extraordinary life…

He is a champion of peace, attracting believers from all religions to see the oneness of the world. He suggests that true religions are recognized by forgiveness, tolerance, compassion, oneness and brotherhood. His work lends itself to a wide audience. Christians, Jews, Muslims and other believers will find many passages in his works of deep insight and helpful suggestion…

I find his works to be personally helpful. In an age when stress is real and it is hard to find the proper amount of time to pray, Sri Chinmoy reminded me that placing God at the center of my life, my work and my prayers will help me to make this a better, more peaceful world and to become the person of faith and love that I am called to be.

Monsignor Thomas J. Hartman

Father Tom also very kindly conducted an extended interview of Sri Chinmoy for the Telecare Network. Here’s the video of that interview:

It was natural that Father Tom and Sri Chinmoy should have become friends. They both expressed a keen and abiding interest in interfaith harmony. Years earlier, in November 1977, Sri Chinmoy had held a meditation and tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. at the United Nations. This was filmed by WPIX-TV.

Father Tom embodied all that is deeply good in the human spirit and all that is good in Catholicism. He will be missed by millions of viewers who knew him as the gentle voice of tolerance, and the gentle face of God.

Michael Howard

Better Reporting on Religious and Ethnic Minorities

Tips for journalists on overcoming false balance, rejecting hate material, and making sense of moral panics

Introduction

As someone who’s been familiar with Sri Chinmoy and the Peace Run for three decades, I’ve noticed that press coverage varies widely in reliability and accuracy. Here are some tips for journalists covering religious and ethnic minorities. These tips also apply to Sri Chinmoy, the Peace Run, and related entities (some of which are secular, but are inspired by spiritual beliefs).

Note: Many people would to be quick to point out differences between “religious” and “spiritual” — with “religious” perhaps connoting dogma and ritual, and “spiritual” suggesting a personal quest for meaning. Yet, there is a continuum between the two, and in this article the terms are used somewhat interchangeably.

Near the end, I include a list of resources which I find helpful in understanding Sri Chinmoy and the Peace Run.

The problem of false balance

I greatly respect journalists and journalism, and know there are practical reasons why some journalists don’t get a story quite right. There are time pressures, and difficulties making sense of an unfamiliar subject. Particularly if the story is considered low priority, there’s always the temptation to simply cut-and-paste material from the Internet, or to invoke a familiar meme rather than doing careful research. There’s also the problem of “false balance.” Rem Rieder writes:

No matter what the news media’s many critics believe, most journalists endeavor to be fair, to give both sides rather than choose sides. In that effort, there’s a tendency to print what someone says, print what the other side says and call it a day.

The trouble is, there isn’t always equal merit on both sides. So, in instances where one side is largely fact-based, and the other is spouting obvious nonsense, treating both sides equally isn’t balanced. It’s misleading.

Often journalists are reluctant to state the conclusions that stem from their reporting, out of the concern that they will appear partisan or biased. But just laying out both positions without going further in an effort to establish the truth can create [false balance]. And that doesn’t do much good for the readers and the viewers.

Journalism isn’t stenography. It’s not treating everything the same when it’s not the same. It’s about giving citizens information about public affairs that is as accurate as possible.

— Rem Rieder, “The danger of false balance in journalism,” USA Today

Continue reading

Jesus is Born–in a world of many faiths

An interfaith sermon by Revd Canon Barbara Moss

we-can-learnIntroduction

At a time when political candidates may seek to divide the faithful, I’m reminded of this wonderful sermon preached by Revd Canon Barbara Moss at St. Mary’s Church, Cambridge in December 2001. After many years, it eventually disappeared from the Internet; so in reposting it on Christmas Eve 2015, I feel I’m reviving a lost treasure. I sincerely hope that Canon Moss would agree.


Jesus is Born–in a world of many faiths

When I started thinking about this sermon, it seemed to me that what the title called for was not just one, but a whole course of sermons, and that I was not qualified to preach any of them. However, I was fortunate enough to attend a special celebration, almost exactly two years ago. It was organized by Westminster Interfaith, to mark the new millennium with readings about Jesus, not from Christian sources, but from writers of other faiths: from the Qur’an to religious leaders of our own day such as the Dalai Lama. It is not only Christians who have drawn inspiration from the life of Jesus.

The secretary of an inter-faith group received a telephone call from a woman from a local church. “We don’t get out much any more, we’re all in our eighties, but we’d love to have a Muslim speaker who can tell us all about Islam.” The secretary put her in touch with a speaker, but about a week before the date of the meeting she received another phone call. “We’re really looking forward to Mrs Khan coming, but there’s just one thing. We’re all Church of England, but none of us believes in the Virgin birth, and we understand that Muslims do. Will she be very offended?”

The Qu’ran does indeed tell of the message of the angel to Mary. Joseph does not seem to play a part in the story; Mary gives birth alone, and when the people accuse her of having “brought an amazing thing,” she points to the baby, who speaks in her defence.

They said, ‘How can we talk to one who is a child in the cradle?’ He said, ‘I am indeed a servant of God. He has given me revelation and made me a prophet. He has made be blessed wheresoever I be, and has enjoined on me prayer and charity as long as I live. He has made me kind to my mother, and not overbearing or miserable. So Peace is on me the day I was born, the day that I die, and the day that I shall be raised up to life again.

The Qu’ran also honours Jesus as a worker of miracles, while making it clear that his wonders are the works of God:

Then will God say: ‘O Jesus the son of Mary! Recount my favour to you and to your mother. Behold! I strengthened you with the holy spirit, so that you did speak to the people in childhood and in maturity. Behold! I taught you the Book and Wisdom, the Law and the Gospel. And behold! You made out of clay, as it were, the figure of a bird, by My leave, and you breathed into it, and it became a bird by My leave, and you healed those born blind, and the lepers, by My leave. And behold! You brought forth the dead by My leave. And behold! I did restrain the Children of Israel from violence to you, when you showed them the clear signs, and the unbelievers among them said: “This is nothing but evident magic.”‘

I found that this passage helped me to come to terms with the miracles, and the key is one that it is not mentioned in the bible, though it comes from early Christian tradition. According to the story, Jesus as a little boy of 5 made sparrows out of clay and breathed into them, and they flew away. I had thought that this story showed the young Jesus as rather too much of an apprentice wonder-worker — a bit like Harry Potter. In the light of the Qu’ran, I see it, rather, as a parable of that life which was in Jesus, who came so that we might know what it is to enjoy life in all its abundance.

For all the great honour it ascribes to Jesus, the Qu’ran condemns two central teachings of Christianity: the crucifixion, and the divinity of Christ. Muslims, and Jews, have difficulty in understanding how Christians can claim to believe in one God while talking as if there are three: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. According to the Qu’ran, it is absurd that God should have a son, and an offense to suggest that God would allow his prophet to suffer the shameful death of crucifixion. The Qu’ran was given to Muhammad, on its own account, because the words of Moses and Jesus had been misunderstood.

Mahatma Gandhi was a Hindu, and for him the problem with Christianity was its claim of exclusivity. He could not believe that Jesus was the ‘only son of God,’ nor accept that ‘only those who believed in Jesus would have everlasting life.’ For him, Jesus was a great teacher, and, in his teaching of non-retaliation, ‘a beautiful example of the perfect man.’ Gandhi’s Christmas message has much to teach us about what it means to follow Christ:

As long as it remains a hunger still unsatisfied, as long as Christ is not yet born, we have to look forward to him. When real peace is established, we will not need demonstrations, but it will be echoed in our life, not only in individual life but in corporate life. Then shall we say Christ is born. Then we will not think of a particular day in the year as that of the birth of Christ, but as an ever-recurring event which can be enacted in every life… It consists in the living of life, never ceasing, ever progressing towards peace. When therefore, one wishes “Happy Christmas” without the meaning behind it, it becomes nothing more than an empty formula. And unless one wishes for peace for all life, one cannot wish for peace for oneself. It is a well-evident axiom like the Axioms of Euclid, that one cannot have peace unless there is an intense longing for peace all round. You may certainly experience peace in the midst of strife, but that only happens when to remove strife you destroy your whole life, you crucify yourself. And so, as the miraculous birth is an eternal event, so is the cross an eternal event in this stormy life. Therefore, we dare not think of birth without death on the cross. Living Christ means a living cross, without it life is living death.

So Gandhi accepts the crucifixion as an essential part of his understanding of Jesus. He also addresses that central tension of Christianity: God’s kingdom has already come, but it has not yet come. In the words of the Lord’s prayer: “Your kingdom come; For the kingdom, the power and the glory are yours, now and for ever.”

Many of the contributors to Celebrating Jesus came, like Gandhi, from the Indian subcontinent or from the Indian religious traditions. Some write of Jesus as a divine manifestation alongside Krishna and the Buddha. The Sikh statesman Dr Gopal Singh wrote an extended poem, “The Man Who Never Died,” which won the approval of the Pope as speaking of Christ in a way that Christians had failed to do in two thousand years. The Dalai Lama, who responded to Pope John Paul II’s invitation ‘to come together and pray and fast for peace’ at Assisi in 1986, sees parallels in the life and teaching of Jesus Christ and the Buddha. But for my third reading I have chosen an extract from a poem by Sri Chinmoy, founder and leader of a religious tradition related to Hinduism and based on meditation, in his book Brother Christ.

I see an empty church.
Where is the Christ?
Where has he gone?

I see an empty temple.
Where is Sri Krishna?
Where has he gone?

I see an empty heart.
Where is God?
Where has He gone?

I saw the face
Of the suffering Christ.
I cried and cried.

I felt the heart
Of the forgiving Christ.
I smiled and smiled.

I clasped the soul
Of the illumining Christ.
I danced and danced.

Sri Chinmoy illuminates the paradox of our age: the abandonment of formal religion, witnessed by empty churches and death-of-God theology, while at the same time there is an intense spiritual thirst. His response in this poem, however, is not to deny the revelation of God in Jesus, but to take inspiration through meditation on Jesus.

The CMS missionary Max Warren once said that whenever you encounter anyone, of any faith or none, you are standing on holy ground; God has been there before you. The readings we have heard this morning show that we can indeed learn from the traditions of the world’s faiths, not only about their own beliefs, but also about our own — sometimes because we find ourselves in agreement with them, sometimes because clarifying our disagreement helps us to understand how it is that God speaks to us. Like the pilgrim entering the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, we enter into dialogue humbly and with bowed heads.

I finish with the world peace prayer, originally from the Hindu Upanishads, then popularized by Mother Teresa of Calcutta, and frequently used at interfaith gatherings.

Lead us from death to life, from falsehood to truth.
Lead us from despair to hope, from fear to trust.
Lead us from hate to love, from war to peace.
Let peace fill our hearts, our world, our universe.

Note:
The quotations from the Holy Qu’ran translated by Abdullah Yusuf Ali, from Mahatma Gandhi’s The Message of Jesus Christ, and from Sri Chinmoy’s Brother Christ, are taken from Celebrating Jesus, edited by Daniel Faivre et al., and published by Daniel Faivre SG, 2 Church Avenue, Southall, Middx., 1999.

— Revd Canon Barbara Moss

Source: https://web.archive.org/web/20080917012003/http://www.ely.anglican.org/parishes/camgsm/sermons/S2002l/bm1sermon.html

Correction: The book by Sri Chinmoy is actually titled Brother Jesus.


Sri Chinmoy, collage from videos by Niriha Datta

Sri Chinmoy, collage from videos by Niriha Datta

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See also: Christmas Music: The Rare and the Beautiful

 

In solidarity with the French people and all people

Looking for solutions to hatred

There’s little that can be said about the tragic terrorist attacks on November 13, 2015 which killed over 130 people — little which is not obvious or hasn’t already been said.

Over the long course of human history, these problems of strife will be solved through insight, tolerance, and love, but in the meantime we need to keep from killing each other.

In my own study of hate groups, I’ve been influenced by Matthew Johnson, who identifies some elements which hate groups have in common: They “otherize” and “dehumanize” those with whom they disagree, to the point where all human empathy has been suppressed and replaced with blind hatred. They create (and constantly reinforce) a narrative in which the Other is responsible for the loss of the group’s proper place in the world at some time in the past, persisting into the present.

On a core level, the solution to these problems is empathy and love, and how to unblock them. This is true irrespective of the different political or religious ideologies which may divide people.

I have heard of programs where Israeli and Palestinian children learn to play together, and so develop natural love and respect for each other’s humanity. Later in life, even in the face of political or religious conflicts, if they know each other’s core humanity, then they will not be able to engage in wanton killing. Where empathy is there, love is there, then love and empathy can find a solution. These children can grow up to be the leaders who find those solutions.

There are also programs where animals with a sweet, loving disposition are used to help people who are depressed or angry (but not yet violent) to develop greater empathy. I think the idea is that when you have a dog or cat who is showing you uncritical love, then it becomes easier to express uncritical love to other people.

In many Western nations, the current tendency is to banish religion from the public square on the grounds that it is too controversial or provides no real benefit. However, hidden within religion, or, let us say, spirituality, are the core truths which can enlighten us so that we are filled with love and compassion for others, and only wish to live in peace. Politics, science, and psychology alone cannot provide the answers. Spirituality is also needed.

As conflicts drag on for decades or even centuries, each side fiercely clutches its list of grievances. But through spiritual insight, people can learn to live in the present moment, and to experience deep and abiding peace. God Himself lives always in the present moment, and that is why He cannot bear a grudge against any of His children.

Each religion is like a house, and it is natural that each person should live inside his or her own house. But in the modern world, we need to expand our insight into the nature of a loving God — a God who loved His children so much that He appeared to each of them in the form that would be most pleasing to them. The God of the Abrahamic religions — of Islam, Judaism, and Christianity — is the same God. This is also the same God, or same Truth, found in the Indic religions, in Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism. We can each live in our own house, but it’s important that we stop fighting with our brothers and sisters, for this makes our Father weep.

There are many injustices in the world. If we feel them keenly, then let us dedicate our lives to eradicating them — not by killing people, but by gradually eliminating the root cause of injustice, which is ignorance. In wisdom, we discover oneness; and in oneness, we no longer find it necessary to fight with our neighbour. No political ideology, scientific discovery, or psychological treatment can take the place of this spiritual insight.

Michael Howard

Nana Mouskouri – Je Chante Avec Toi Liberté
(Song For Liberty)

When you sing I’m singing with you liberty
When you cry I cry with you in sorrow
When you suffer I’m praying for you liberty
For your struggles will bring us a new tomorrow

Days of sad darkness and fear must one day crumble
For the force of your kindness and love make them tremble
When you sing I’m singing with you liberty
In the void of your absence I keep searching for you

Who are you dream illusion or just reality
Faith ideal desire revolution
I believe you’re the symbol of our humanity
Lighting up the world for eternity

I can see why men die to defend you
Try to guard to protect and attend you
When you sing I’m singing with you liberty
With your tears or your joys I love you
Let us sing and rejoice make our own history
Songs of hope with one voice guide us to victory
Liberty, liberty

(Verdi / P. Delanoë / C. Lemesle / J. Johns)
http://www.nanamouskouri.de/songforl.htm


See also: I Am Not Charlie: Peanuts Version

Maggie Simpson Says “I Want My Hijab!”

In the spirit of religious tolerance and total non-violence, I offer this Photoshopped image intended to make you think:

Simpsons-Hebdo-I-Want-My-Hijab-v14b-newI had buried this image in a long post where few would see it, but wanted to give it some signal boost since it could spark debate about the ethics of using cartoon characters to sell an idea or product, and broader issues. Some key points are:

  • Combining the Maggie Simpson and Je Suis Charlie icons (as FOX did) should raise a few eyebrows.
  • For some I Am Charlie refuseniks, throwing total support to the magazine is too simplistic an answer to complex problems.
  • One of the best articles highlighting the contradictions is Scott Sayare’s here in The Atlantic.
  • The ultimate answer lies in insight, religious tolerance, and balancing freedom of speech with freedom of religion, freedom from vilification, and respect for the dignity of each person.
  • The Islamic extremist message gains traction from the free speech extremist message, and vice versa. The reasonable middle becomes harder to locate.
  • When free speech is balanced with wisdom and compassion, it’s easier for people to eke out a middle ground where they begin to hear each other. Neither Islamic extremists nor Charlie Hebdo represent that fragile middle ground, though obviously the terrorists who killed people perpetrated an infinitely greater wrong than the cartoonists who provoked them.
  • The controversy surrounding Charlie Hebdo doesn’t occur in a vacuum, but rather against a backdrop which includes the French law banning Muslim women from wearing headscarves in some places.
Hijab is the headscarf worn by many Muslim women.

Hijab is the headscarf worn by many Muslim women.

  • I am neither French, nor Muslim, nor female, but I know of no one who favours religious tolerance who thinks the French ban on headscarves is enlightened social policy. Rather, it tends to create hurt feelings and an anti-assimilation backlash.
  • The distinctly French view that the entire public space must be secularized through rigid laws banning religious garb and religious expression is an extreme view which is ultimately incompatible with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
  • While not everyone is religious or spiritual, those who are contribute much to the beauty, wisdom, and colour of the world we live in, and also have a role to play in finding solutions to society’s problems.
  • Spirituality is a natural part of life. Although it’s often convenient and appropriate to distinguish between the secular sphere and the religious sphere, the boundaries between them should be fluid, like the shoreline and the sea.
  • Religious freedom means the freedom to live life integrally and not be forced to doff one’s hijab, yarmulke, or sari for fear of being arrested, ticketed, or refused entrance to a public facility.
  • These are differences which need to be worked out peacefully through respectful dialogue.

In closing: I sometimes feel guilty about repeating certain themes, such as the need for religious tolerance. But this message needs to be repeated a thousand different times in a thousand different ways, because it’s key to building our future world.

Religious tolerance isn’t the end of a conversation, it’s only the beginning of one! Religious tolerance comes through insight, and this insight is achieved through education, study, and soul-searching. That’s a little harder than choosing a prefab opinion from Column A or Column B, but the results are worth it!

Michael Howard

The views expressed are my own, and do not represent any other person or organization.

See also: “In solidarity with the French people and all people”