When we experience the religious rituals of the “other,” we usually cannot help but respond with an internal running commentary, seeking connections to our own past. I know that whenever I heard the blast of a conch shell at an Afro-Brazilian rite during my years in Brazil, my mind would skip back to the sound of the shofar in my childhood temple.
On Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, many Christians (and Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, atheists) find themselves attending services with Jewish partners, or parents, or other family members. These services, while tremendously important to Jews, can be difficult for those without Jewish education to access, due to length, solemnity, and the density of Hebrew. Nevertheless, I always strongly recommend that those of other religions accompany their Jewish partners or parents to synagogue services, both to keep them from feeling lonely, and to learn and reflect.
Reza Aslan’s newest book, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, had already reached the bestseller list when a video clip of the author went viral this week. The religion scholar appeared on Fox news to explain his latest work, but the host repeatedly and outrageously questioned why a Muslim would be writing a book about Jesus.
Aslan–the acclaimed author of No god but God: The Origins, Evolution and Future of Islam–demonstrated extraordinary grace and patience on the show, explaining over and over that religion scholars write as academics, not as adherents. Buzzfeed asked if this was “The Most Embarrassing Interview that Fox News Has Ever Done?” Meanwhile, in the course of the interview, Aslan mentioned that his wife and mother are both Christians.
As it happens, I tell the story of this high-profile interfaith family in my book Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family. About a year ago, Aslan tweeted: “I’m in a blissful interfaith marriage with my Christian wife. We are raising our children to respect all faiths and choose 1 for themselves.” When I read that tweet, I contacted him, and he and his wife agreed to be interviewed for my book chapter entitled “Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists: The Next Interfaith Wave.”
Aslan’s wife Jessica Jackley is prominent in her own field, as the co-founder of Kiva, the pioneering microfinance non-profit. But Aslan’s engagement with Christianity did not begin with marriage. In Being Both, he describes his own journey as the child of a family of Iranian refugees who were “cultural Muslims,” to a period of evangelical Christian zeal beginning in high school (during which he converted his own mother to Christianity), to rediscovery of Islam while a student of religions.
One of my themes is how being part of an interfaith family can inspire deeper understanding of one’s own religion(s), in the religion of a partner, and ultimately in the religions of the world. In describing their courtship and marriage, Jackley, who comes from an evangelical Christian family, told me, “He knows the Bible better than I do. He’s writing a book right now on Jesus. He understood my life better than most Christians.” That book eventually became Zealot.
Aslan and Jackley are now raising their twin sons with the values shared by both family religions, and with stories from diverse traditions. “What we’re going to teach our kids is the values, the beliefs, the activism, the worldview,” Aslan told me. “And when it comes to the stories, we’ll give them all of them.”
Being Both includes more on the marriage of Aslan and Jackley, the reaction of their interfaith families, and how they are raising their sons. They are two, perhaps the most prominent two, out of the hundreds of people who entrusted me with their interfaith family stories. Aslan, who received an advanced copy, calls the book, “A gorgeous and inspiring testament to the power of love to not only transcend the divides of faith and tradition, but to bring faiths together and create wholly new traditions.”
In a regular feature titled “Ask Interfaith Mom,” I plan to tackle your questions about raising interfaith kids. Here’s a great question from a comment on a recent post about interfaith grandparents:
Question: In raising my son both, I realize his grandparents will not always like or support how we are bringing the two traditions together and I am interested in ways to present to them that they should always feel free to opt out of saying anything or doing anything they don’t really believe. Thanks for any guidance you have!
One of the most liberating aspects of choosing both family religions is that you give yourself permission to pass on to your children that which is meaningful to you, rather than a required system of beliefs and practices. And in making your own choices, you set a precedent that your children will have the right to opt into or out of any of these beliefs or practices.
Discussing this freedom with your parents (the grandparents) will help them to feel comfortable making their own choices about whether or not to participate in any ritual or prayer they might encounter when celebrating with your interfaith family. Ideally then, the idea that they have permission to participate, or not, would be integral and natural, and would not need to be announced in a formal manner.
But of course, it may take time for extended family members to reach this state of appreciation. Grandparents who have spent a lifetime in a “monofaith” environment, and who may still feel sadness over the fact that their grandchildren will not be raised exclusively in their own religion, cannot always be expected to jump into interfaith practice with enthusiasm. What I can tell you is that many who have started out reluctant or even upset over the idea of an interfaith upbringing, over time have come to appreciate the way extended interfaith families are able to share spiritual inspiration, religious history, and cultures.
However, everyone in an interfaith family (or for that matter, living in our religiously pluralistic society) is going to have moments, often when visiting a more traditional place of worship, when they may want to opt out of participating in a prayer or ritual. Let’s get to some challenging specifics: for instance, taking communion at church. In some churches, the ritual of taking communion becomes a public declaration around who has the right to participate. In such a setting, it would be important to reassure interfaith family members in advance (whether a grandparent, spouse, or interfaith child) that it is fine to remain seated in the pew, and not go up to take communion. Explain that even some Christians abstain from communion at certain times or in certain places, for their own personal reasons, or because not every Christian denomination invites all Christians from other denominations to participate. While those who choose not to take communion may feel like they are sticking out by staying seated, in theory no one should ask them why they remained in the pew.
When you design an interfaith family celebration, this is your opportunity to make the rituals and prayers as inclusive as possible. Ideally, such a celebration would be so welcoming that no one would feel the need to abstain. Sometimes, this means recasting a prayer or ritual to be more radically inclusive, and explicitly inviting all to participate. Personally, I have seen Jewish people (and even a rabbi) take communion at a super-progressive Christian service in which the communion ritual was presented as a metaphorical table where all share food and drink together, based on the Jewish rituals of blessing over bread and wine, regardless of religious institutional membership or beliefs.
To take another example from the other side of the aisle, the bris, or Jewish ritual circumcision for baby boys, can be difficult for non-Jewish family members. Honestly, it is difficult for many Jewish people too, some of whom now oppose circumcision and have designed baby-welcoming ceremonies that do not involve cutting. It’s important to share all the different viewpoints on this ritual with non-Jewish family. I do understand why some interfaith families choose to have a bris, and the deep meaning it has for some Jewish family members. But I don’t think anyone (Jewish or otherwise) should feel required to attend the ceremony. And it would be important to communicate this permission to participate, or not, to everyone in the extended family as early as possible to avoid misunderstandings. Both the new grandparents and their intermarried children must make an extra effort to empathize with each other at this vulnerable moment around birth: the new parents must try hard to accept and not resent family members who choose not to participate, and family must try hard to accept and not resent the choice of the new parents to honor (or conversely, to move away from) such an ancient ritual.
Sometimes, grandparents may surprise you with their willingness to participate, and cross theological boundaries. For instance, I was worried about how my Jewish father would react to hearing his interfaith grandchildren say a traditional Christian prayer such as the Lord’s Prayer in our interfaith community Gathering. To my surprise, I saw my father reciting the prayer along with his grandchildren, and discovered that he said this prayer in his public school classroom everyday, growing up in the 1930s. Since the prayer does not mention Jesus, my father did not even realize until much later that this is officially a Christian prayer. As an adult interfaith child who was raised Jewish, my own appreciation of the Lord’s Prayer is heightened by the knowledge that many scholars have pointed out the parallels between the language in the Lord’s Prayer and the Kaddish and other central Jewish prayers. So a moment I had anticipated as possibly problematic became an opportunity for interesting theological discussion with my parents.
What experiences have you had in including interfaith grandparents? Or, what is your perspective as an interfaith grandparent? And what questions do you have for “Ask Interfaith Mom”?
Susan Campbell is the author of Dating Jesus and the upcoming biography, Tempest-Tossed: The Spirit of Isabella Beecher Hooker. For more than a quarter-century, she was a columnist at the Hartford Courant, where her work was recognized by the National Women’s Political Caucus, New England Associated Press News Executives, the Society for Professional Journalists, the American Association of Sunday and Feature Editors, the National Society of Newspaper Columnists, and the Sunday Magazine Editors Association. Her column about the shootings at lottery headquarters in March 1998 was part of The Courant’s Pulitzer Prize-winning coverage.
Back when my parents were still married, we celebrated Christmas with all the trimmings. I sang “Away In a Manger” at a Christmas fair. One brother was a shepherd, when he wanted very much to be Joseph. We talked about Baby Jesus in the manger.
And then my parents divorced, and my mother married a fundamentalist Christian for whom Christmas was nothing more than those Catholics trying to get one over on you — Christ-Mass. Get it? So we celebrated, but only the secular part (tree, Santa, gifts) and we did so quietly because some of the more dedicated members of my church didn’t do even that.
I remember asking about that in Sunday school, and having it explained to me that Jesus couldn’t have been born on Dec. 25, and that holidays like that weren’t really our style, that we celebrate every Sunday and isn’t that better than just once a year?
I wasn’t stupid. Sundays weren’t nearly as interesting as Christmas, and as I grew up, I found that theology growing smaller for me — and my Christmas trees getting bigger.
Ah, but the sword of fundamentalism plunges deep. You can think you’ve walked far from that whole thing, and then? Something snatches you back. I decorated our tree last night, and drowned myself in a maudlin retelling (mostly, to the ornaments themselves, as who wants to be around a maudlin hillbilly?) of each ornament’s history. The Mickey Mouse ornament I bought the year of my own divorce, when I won a writing contest and spent every penny to take my son to Disney World. The cheap, buy-’em-by-the-half-dozen ornaments I got the year I thought I’d lost all my Christmas gear. The fancy glass ornaments I saved up for, just like the ones my dad brought back from Germany. Sprinkled throughout are precious homemade ornaments from my sons, a poem, a pair of cotton skates, a carefully rendered manger scene.
As I decorated, I listened to Nat King Cole, who has accompanied me every year as I make my (slow) way back to Christmas. And every year, when the choir behind him swells, I get a little choked up. It’s a good kind of choked up, I promise. So what if Jesus wasn’t born on Dec. 25? It’s a beautiful holiday when people show a little more kindness, and a lot more love. We really do need a little Christmas.
So when I die, and I stand before God, and She asks, “Did you have a Christmas tree?” I will answer, “Hell, yes, I did.”
Carolyn Meckbach is a former editorial intern for Beacon Press, where she crafted the discussion guide for Faitheist. She is studying Political Science and Gender Studies at Gordon College while directing If I Told You, a student-run journal that publishes personal narratives surrounding sexual orientation, spiritual doubt, and mental health.
Get Faitheist and all other Beacon books for 20% off if you order in December. You'll also get free shipping and support a good cause. Click here for more info.
No sooner had I found a
spot in the cramped basement of an Old Jerusalem café in Central Square than I
realized I had entirely misplaced the notes and questions I had written for an
interview with Chris Stedman, author of Faitheist:
How an Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious. My mind reeled,
trying to remember my talking points, trying to brainstorm new ones. Chris had
just arrived back in town from a cluster of speaking gigs and was already
taking time away from work to meet with me; the least I could do was ensure I
knew what I wanted to ask him. As I grabbed my notebook and began to scrawl a
few poorly-ordered questions, I looked up to see him standing before me
smiling, arms held out as if to give me a hug. (I had never met him, but
immediately doubted he was a native New Englander: as it would turn out, he is
not.) I stood to greet him, and amid his laughter about a nearly unsuccessful
attempt to find the place, I remember him glancing down at my notes to remark:
conversational today, if that’s alright with you.”
After conversing with him
for those few hours, and in the subsequent times we’ve met, I’ve realized that his
initial request—more an invitation—pretty much sums up Chris’s entire approach
to conflict-resolution: a preference for open, personal discourse as opposed to
rigid debate. In person, what’s notable about Chris is the way he becomes immediately
familiar through quirky and humbling admissions, and the forward-leaning manner
in which he listens. It’s abundantly clear that Chris is most fulfilled when he’s
creating an opportunity for both others and himself to speak with honesty.
What follows is a highly-condensed
version of some of our conversations (also found at Patrol
Magazine) in which Chris explores his transition from Evangelical
Christianity to secular humanism – as well as the various insights which have
positioned him to share about his journey.
be frank here. You’re 25, and you’ve already written a memoir…
Ahh. More often than not, people will say to me: ‘A memoir? You must have had a really interesting life.’ I suppose I
have had an interesting life, but it’s hard for me to compare it to others
because it’s the only life I’ve ever had. Most people think their own life is
interesting, and I guess I’m no exception. But this book isn’t really about
whether my life has been sensational or not; I wrote this book because I care
about trying to improve the way that the religious and the nonreligious speak
with and about one another, because it feels to me like there is an
increasingly volatile chasm between those groups. The reason I wrote this book
as a memoir is because scholars like Marshall Ganz agree that storytelling is
one of the best avenues for reconciliation and for prompting discussion across
lines of diversity. The easiest way for me to explain why I believe this work
is urgent, and why I personally care about it so much, is by discussing it
through the lens of my own story.
sheds light on when you were 10 and encountered books like The Diary of
Anne Frank, Roots, and Hiroshima. How
instrumental were these books to your initial impulse to become involved in
I was horrified. I had no
idea I lived in a country that had recently allowed for slavery. I had no idea
that I lived in a country built on stolen land. I had no idea that, within the
last 50 years, an atomic bomb had been dropped by my own country on another. I
had no idea that WWII had happened; I knew nothing of the Holocaust. And these
books, of course, didn’t just present the facts; they were stories that personified these issues, making it easy
for me to imagine myself, or friends or loved ones, in those situations.
And how did this affect your pursuit
of a god?
Well, I was looking for a
way at a very young age of how to make sense of all that—I wondered if the
perpetrators of those crimes would be on the receiving end of some type of justice,
or if the people who had suffered at the hands of such evil individuals would
experience some kind of redemption. The Christian cosmology provided the
answers to the questions I had been asking; the theology I was presented said
that those who acted in selfish ways—ways that obscured others’ rights to live
freely in the world—would be punished for their actions, and that the innocent
individuals who suffered would be rewarded with an eternal life… if they accepted Jesus Christ as their
And that’s a big “if” that you
committed to, right?
Well, I wanted that for
myself too. Converting seemed like a no-brainer at the time. Everybody there
was, like, so excited for me, and I thought: okay, now I belong. Now I belong somewhere; I belong here. And not only
in this physical space, surrounded by these people, but in this sort of larger
cosmic structure. As in: “I am part of God’s flock now.”
How did people receive you?
So warmly. I remember the
youth pastor asking me, after I casually mentioned I had a big exam coming up,
“How did that math test go?” They were very attentive; they really seemed to
care—and that felt really nice, given the way my family was fracturing at the
time. Another factor that played into my going to church was that I wasn’t the
coolest kid around—I didn’t have trendy clothes and was a bit of a nerd, and
all the cool kids went to youth group.
Youth group was this weird mix of cool kids and the nerds they wouldn’t
associate with outside of youth group. But while you’re at youth group, you’re
all best friends. Anyway, despite all of those things that appealed to me about
church—the way it substituted the structure my family once provided, how it
compensated for my feeling like a total misfit at school, and how it provided me
a framework for making sense of injustice—it wasn’t a good thing for very long.
I soon realized it was only a safe place for some.About two months into my participation in this Evangelical
Christian community, I finally put my finger on something that I had always
sort of known. I had always felt a little, um, different. And I wasn’t
altogether sure why. I mean, everybody feels a bit different at some point. But
I just knew something was ‘off.’ Something about who I was didn’t fit what I
was supposed to be.
you’re partly referring to your sexual orientation—how would you say that you
first fully recognized this “difference”?
write about it in the book: I was watching TV and this commercial came on. It
was a low-budget ad for swim suits; there was a male model and a female model
standing next to each other, and I just had this moment where I was like: ‘Oh my God. It’s supposed to be the one on
the left drawing my eye, but it’s the one on the right.’ It was horrifying.
I was like, ‘Oh f—. I’m in big trouble.’ Because I knew this was
going to be a big problem—not just in terms of societal expectations, but
particularly within this community that I was so enamored with, that meant so
much to me.
lived in a small town in the Midwest, right?
grew up just outside of St. Paul, in a blue-collar river town. To put it in
perspective, my elementary school district was the one featured in a Rolling Stone article entitled “One
Town’s War on Gay Teens,” which investigated a recent suicide epidemic where
nine students thought to be gay killed themselves within a two-year period. So,
needless to say, I didn’t want to be gay. See—things are very different today.
There are representations of happy, healthy LGBT folks all over the place.
Ellen DeGeneres, Glee—they’re
everywhere you look. But when I was in middle school, I don’t think even Will & Grace was on the air yet. And
even by the time that show did come, they, you know, lived in these fancy New
York apartments with lives that didn’t look anything like mine. I was a dorky
Midwesterner—I could not relate to that. I didn’t personally know any gay
people, and the few things I had heard about gay people were not good. At the end of the day, though,
my being gay was just another way thing to make me feel different from the
majority of my peers.
How did the realization that you
were gay affectyour faith?
Since I didn’t really
want to be gay, I decided I was going to change my sexual orientation. I got
the idea from my Christian church, who said that homosexuality was solvable,
changeable. I didn’t talk to anyone about it for fear of being ostracized, but
I got the impression based on ideas promoted within the church that being gay
was a spiritual affliction—one that could be overcome through dutifulness to
tradition. So if I prayed and I fasted and I studied Scripture and was just
this model Christian, my ‘burden’ would be lifted. I came to see my same-sex
attractions as a test, or a punishment—one I could overcome. So I worked very hard
to do just that, but became despondent as years passed by and I didn’t see any
progress. The irony is that I had become a part of this community because I was
looking for a way to make sense of suffering and because the communal aspect of
Christianity was very appealing—but when I became increasingly serious about my
quest to change my sexual orientation for them, I ended up retreating further
and further into myself, and suffering more and more. Eventually I was just a
zombie stumbling through my own life, completely unengaged with the world
around me; focused solely on this one
You write in the book about certain
times that you were harassed by Christians. How much did those experiences
influence your break with Evangelical Christianity?
atheism wasn’t born out of the negative experiences that I had had within the
church, although I will admit that they sort of set me on a course of
self-reflection that led me to the conclusion that God probably does not exist.
As a college student, I was encouraged to turn a critical eye on my initial
conversion experience. When I did, I realized I hadn’t really converted for the
theology of the church, but for the community and the ethics and the positive
social action. But I wonder if I would’ve had the opportunity to enter into
that deep kind of reflection if I hadn’t had to question everything about who I
was for a number of years. I don’t know. I actually think those kinds of
hypotheticals are a bit silly. I am where I am now, and that’s what I know. But
it’s important for me to say that I didn’t decide that I don’t believe in an
anthropomorphized deity who is an interventionist force simply because
Christians were mean to me. I feel that’s what a lot of people think about
atheists—that they don’t believe in God because of negative experiences with
atheism is portrayed as something that is purely reactionary. For me, it was
actually more the result of critical self-reflection, which I go into in the
book. I looked at my own underlying values and beliefs and I just decided, you
know, this community isn’t my community and this Christian narrative is not my
narrative. It’s interesting to me that when I tell a very brief version of my
story of my years in the church, I’ll have Christians come up to me afterwards,
and they’ll say: “I just want to apologize on behalf of all Christians for what
you went through and you should know that not all Christians believe this. I’m
a part of a community that would welcome you without question for who you are.”
And while I really appreciate that, and I know it’s usually coming from a very
good place, part of me wonders: ‘did you
listen to the second half of what I talked about?’ My issue with
Christianity wasn’t solely because I hadn’t been entirely welcomed, though that
was a big part of it; I had to find a place where I fit. I had to find the
right language to describe the world around me. And that right language is a
humanistic, naturalistic way of seeing things.
existential problems don’t concern you as much anymore, why do you feel so
strongly that the irreligious should care about religion?
care in the sense that other people care. I recognize the significance religion
holds for so many other people. Even though the debate about the existence of
God is increasingly irrelevant to me, that doesn’t mean that it must be
irrelevant to everybody else. I have many friends and colleagues and people who
inspire me to action who are deeply motivated by their religious beliefs—and not
only isn’t that a problem to me, I actually celebrate
it, when it’s something that enriches their lives and propels them to enrich
other people’s lives. It’s not my business to say that because their source of
inspiration is different from my own and because I believe it is incorrect,
they must abandon it. If something is
a force for good in somebody else’s life, I don’t feel that it is my place to
erode that belief.
this sense, you’ve been known to deviate from the New Atheist movement.
this is where I diverge very strongly from some other atheists. A lot of other
atheists I encounter believe that the solution to the problems in our world is
to convince other people to drop “magical thinking” as they would put it—to
look at the hard, cold facts of existence and face them in the eye and just
deal with the fact that ‘we are all we
you’ve received criticism from such atheists as being “too soft” (with the
title of your book as evidence), you haven’t always been so open to the fruitful
aspects of religious belief. (After your conversion from Christianity, you
express in Faitheist
that you had been confrontational, mirroring the kind of atheism you now object
to.) What changed? What’s a key principle for you now when you’re interacting
with those who are outspokenly committed to religious beliefs that oppose your
first and foremost. It sounds backwards, but focusing on myself has enabled me
to find common ground with others. I try to be increasingly aware of my own stuff: where my own pressure-points are,
when I’m engaging in an interaction with someone else and it’s really about
something that I myself am dealing with. I think self-awareness for me has been
the key for being able to find common ground with people who believe really
different things than I do, and the key to being able to forgive the people who
perpetuated the beliefs that ultimately led me into a really difficult
I write in the book, so much of my issue in college was that I really wasn’t
self-aware. So much of what was preventing me from having those conversations
with others – so much of what led me to be confrontational – was my own lack of
self-awareness, and less what they had done. I hadn’t fully acquired a
disposition which made me want to
learn and want to listen — I had this
orientation of wanting to project and disagree, or wanting to isolate myself,
and I could sort of twist what others said. I could totally manipulate anything
anyone said into something hateful. But as I got older, I shifted into a
position of wanting to understand what I cared about the most and where my
values were. A lot of that has had to do with my education in pastoral care
work—my Masters was in Pastoral Care. My focus shifted from wanting to align
the beliefs of others with my own, or wanting to confront differences, to
wanting to live as fully into my own convictions as I could.
feel religious belief can ever become a problem?
becomes a problem when a person’s religious beliefs compel him or her to impose
those beliefs onto other people’s lives in ways that are harmful and hurtful;
when they’re used to diminish others’ liberty and dignity. Of course, I don’t
think that religious beliefs have a monopoly on dehumanization and diminishment.
The issue for me is not religion or religious beliefs as much as it is any kind
of totalitarianistic, dogmatic, exclusivistic, tribalistic way of thinking and
way of seeing the world—anything that is used to oppressive ends. If we can
reduce the prevalence that kind of thinking and that kind of behavior, we will
live in a much more peaceable world.
sheds light upon both your adolescence and early adulthood, and I know that the
work you immerse yourself in – interfaith activism—involves reaching out to a
younger crowd who oftentimes feels hesitant to validate their nonreligious,
religious, and sexual-based identities due to their age. How do you hope that
younger individuals will interact with this book?
hope that it might encourage younger people to step out into the public arena
with their stories and their beliefs. I believe young people have the capacity
to do such good work in the world, but many don’t feel they have the authority
to speak, or to act, or to influence. This is why I’m so involved with IFYC,
because I hope that other young people will see me say: ‘You know, he’s not the
smartest guy around. He’s not the most well-spoken; sure, what he’s doing
resonates with me, but I could do what he’s doing.’ Young people’s voices are
largely absent in these circles of influence, and I hope that my experience
inspires other people to be confident, to speak out, and to not feel like they
have to have everything figured out in order to participate in discussions
about religious diversity.
As with any memoir, publishing this
puts you in a vulnerable position. How do you feel you might respond to any
criticism about “not-having-all-of-your-ducks-in-a-row” – that your life is too
much in flux to be penning it down in a memoir?
[Laughing:] I’m sure that
in 5 years from now so much will have changed, but I suspect that my central
concerns will remain relatively stable. Without being apologetic about it, I
come right out in the book and try to explain that I don’t have it all figured
out. Still, I hope my striving for authenticity will come through in the
writing, and in who I am as a person. And if that doesn’t translate, then, you
know, I’ll keep trying. What I’ve learned over the years from struggling with
all of this is that every day is a new day—a chance to try again, to try it
anew, to try something else. It’s
constantly ongoing, meaning: nothing is at the end of the book. There is no
Katz Miller is both an interfaith child and an interfaith parent. Her book on raising children with two religions, based on hundreds of survey responses and interviews, will be published by Beacon Press in 2013. You can find her interfaith essays at interfaithfamily.com and on NPR’s All Things Considered. She served as an expert on interfaith children at national conferences, and has chaired the Board of the Interfaith Families Project of Greater Washington DC, the interfaith group with the largest religious education program in the country. She is a former reporter for Newsweek and New Scientistmagazines, and her work has also appeared in The New York Times, The Christian Science Monitor, Discover, Science, and many other publications.
the East Coast is still reeling from Hurricane Sandy, I could not let the
season of All Saints and All Souls go
by without note. And I wanted to describe how our community of interfaith families celebrated
the life of Saint Francis of Assisi, who had his feast day recently.
Neither our rabbi nor our minister (who
was raised as a Baptist) grew up celebrating the lives of the saints, and yet
they co-officiated at this recent Gathering. About half
of the Christians in our interfaith families community were raised Catholic,
and we embrace Saint Francis as an interfaith peacemaker.
On the morning of our celebration, a
simple wooden statue of the saint, with a bird balanced in his palm, stood at
the front of the room. So, before a word was even uttered, some of us were
working through interfaith issues. Such “graven images” present a challenge for some
Jews (and Muslims) who grew up with only abstract religious art, based
on Biblical and Qur’anic injunctions against idolatry. But for me,
contemplating an image of a saint, while learning about his or her life and
spiritual practice, is not the same thing as praying “to” or worshipping a
As patron saint of animals and the
environment, and as a man born wealthy who gave up all his worldly goods, Saint
Francis holds tremendous appeal across the religious divides. Both Catholics
and Anglicans (and thus Episcopalians) celebrate his feast day with a blessing
of the animals, when parishioners actually bring animals to church. I find this
idea tremendously appealing, perhaps because it breaches the usual human/animal
divide, inviting nature into the sanctuary.
The life of Saint Francis has inspired
many popular works of music and art. Franco Zefferelli’s 1972 film Brother
Sun, Sister Moon depicted Francis as a sort of flower
child, with a soundtrack of sweet songs by Donovan.
My favorite Saint Francis film is the less sentimental and rather surreal and
even inscrutable Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Uccellacci
e uccellini (or The
Hawks and the Sparrows) a mystical political fable with a talking
At our celebration, we sang the
Catholic hymn “Make Me an Instrument of Peace,” based on the Prayer of Saint
Francis. The prayer has inspired many composers and has many tunes. I love
this version by a
rabbi and a Franciscan monk who harmonize. As our group sang (a different
tune), I noticed that our house interfaith band that week included a Jewish
keyboard player from England, a Jewish doumbek player from Morocco, and two
Jewish singers. It’s not that we’re converting to Catholicism. All of us feel
inspired by Francis, and enriched as members of interfaith families, and as
individuals who yearn for peace, by spending a morning devoted to learning
about his life.
Available in bookstores today: The unlikely story of how faith and determination compelled an American to travel to Africa and open a school for children orphaned by the AIDS epidemic.
David Nixon knew nothing about the small, landlocked African country of Malawi. An unassuming carpenter from North Carolina, Nixon had had his share of tough breaks, from enduring a traumatic childhood to battling drug addictions. But after having a religious awakening and learning about his church's efforts to aid some of Africa's most impoverished citizens, he found a new purpose for his life. He became determined to help the people of Malawi in some way-he would come up with the details later. Nixon raised money from his church community and set off for Africa, where he befriended a Malawian pastor and decided to do what so many Americans who go to Africa do: build an orphanage.
Nixon slowly comes to realize, however, that what he thinks is good for the Malawians is not necessarily what they need or want. As Donnelly shows, orphanages are not always the best use of resources, and there is much controversy surrounding removing children from their communities. After learning to listen to the villagers, Nixon amends his plan and eventually ends up building a school and a feeding center that supports 350 children orphaned by the AIDS epidemic.
A Twist of Faith is the story of one man who, despite personal setbacks, a profound cultural gap, the corruption of local officials, and the heartbreak of losing the orphans he comes to love, is determined to do good in a place nothing like home. It is the story of a man who saves himself by saving others. Nixon's story is representative of a growing trend: the thousands of American Christians who are impassioned donors of time, money, and personal energy, devoted to helping African children orphaned by AIDS.
“Through the story of David Nixon's faith-driven journey to save the destitute in Malawi, John Donnelly explores the tenets of true service to underserved communities and accompaniment of the poor, while focusing a shrewd reporter's gaze on the efforts of various American aid organizations in Africa. He offers a compelling account of the great joy, frustration, and personal sacrifice inherent in addressing the urgent moral claim of the poor on a Christian conscience.” —Paul Farmer, author of Haiti After the Earthquake
About the Author For more than thirty years, John Donnelly has reported in regions far from the United States, starting with the civil wars of Central America, delving into the political violence in Haiti, drawing out tales of conflict and peace in the Middle East and Asia, and then landing in Africa, where he feels most at home. In Africa, where he traveled as a staff reporter for the Boston Globe and later as a Kaiser Family Foundation fellow, he became intrigued by the steady stream of Americans with big hearts and big ambitions whose adventures are told in this book.
Our blog is on a bit of a vacation for the holidays, since the blog editor is celebrating Pesach with her in-laws while also putting together Easter baskets for her kids. This from Susan Katz Miller's On Being Both blog really struck a chord. The author of a forthcoming book on interfaith family life offers her family's solution for honoring their religious traditions when holidays overlap.
This year, I am fielding calls from reporters wanting to know how we handle the dilemma of Passover starting on Good Friday. I know that, especially for young couples just starting their interfaith journey, this convergence of important holidays may create stress. Say, for instance, your in-laws are expecting you for a raucous Passover seder featuring four glasses of wine and glazed brisket: this could be an alienating experience if you are also commemorating the crucifixion of Jesus and avoiding meat on the solemn Friday of Holy Week.
As interfaith families become the norm in our culture, rather than the exception, all of us must learn to empathize, to see our own practices through the eyes of the “other.” And as each interfaith couple learns to listen deeply and to support one another, I can imagine that serving salmon, rather than brisket, might be a reasonable accommodation in some families this year. [Read the rest of the post here.]
Whatever and however you are celebrating--be it Easter, Passover, beautiful spring weather, or a mix--we hope you have a wonderful weekend.
We've all heard the cliché, and we all know its meaning: that "male" and "female" are at the heart of God's plan for the world, and that heterosexuality is the only "natural" sexuality. Kirk Cameron, the former child TV star, made this point just a few days ago: that homosexuality is unnatural.
We know, too, that this is not a scientific claim. Actually, homosexuality is quite "natural"; it's present in hundreds of animal species and in every culture in the world. Sexual diversity is the rule, not the exception -- the plan, not the deviation.
But there is that myth, that story, of Adam and Eve. No matter the scientific evidence, no matter the countless lives of happy, healthy LGBT people, there's that story, that binary, and that claim.
Well, I'd like to take that story back -- to reclaim it for all of us, not just those of us who find love in heterosexual, monogamous life.
First, let's set aside the parts about God, the Bible, the whole theological aspect of this myth. Let's treat it just as literature -- as a text, sacred to many, but first and foremost a story of human origins and human purpose. All of us -- religious, atheist, agnostic, Christian, Jewish, Muslim, progressive, fundamentalist -- should be able to agree on that.
And in that myth, the pairing of Adam and Eve was the solution to a problem. In the more detailed version of the Genesis story, they don't just appear on the stage; human coupling is the result of divine fidgeting. God creates the human being, but then has to tinker with the original plan, because of the first flaw God finds with all of God's creation: loneliness.
"It is not good for the human being to be alone," God says in Genesis 2:18. In context, this is a shocking pronouncement. Six times, God had remarked how good everything is: light, Heaven and Earth, stars, plants, animals -- all of these are "good." The entirety of creation is "very good." Yet suddenly something is not good. Suddenly, God realizes there is something within the world as we find it that is insufficient, something that all of us experience in our own lives and that we all strive to transcend: the existential condition of being alone.
Notice, too, that Eve is not the first solution God attempts to deal with the problem of Adam's aloneness. God first presents Adam with every animal in the world -- birds, beasts, even those animals that would later become domesticated by people. But none suffices. Only then does the story of Genesis 2 tell us that God took the rib from man to make woman. Only human companionship solves the existential problem of aloneness, the first problem our religious traditions set out to address. And, finally, notice that Eve is not created, in this narrative, to make children with Adam; this story is about loneliness and love, not procreation and progeny. Indeed, Eve's femininity is not even essential to be what Hebrew calls an ezer kenegdo, and what antiquated King James English calls a "help-meet": someone able to be with Adam on equal terms and be a companion to him.
In other words, notwithstanding the many problems with this particular myth (it's been used not just against gays, of course, but primarily against women, by those who read it as setting up a gender hierarchy), this is a tale about the importance of human love and companionship.
Now, for most people, this love is indeed experienced in a relationship between a man and a woman. For about 5 percent of people (we can argue about the numbers; the range is usually 3 to 10 percent), this love is found in a relationship between two men, or between two women. And for some others, love may be found in either kind of relationship, and sexuality may be experienced as fluid.
Personally, I am one of that 5 percent. During my teens and 20s, as I struggled with my sexuality, I had relationships with women and, as much as I was able, fell in love. But something was always "off," even though at the time I couldn't quite identify it. (Maybe I knew, deep down. I don't know.) It took me 10 years of wrestling, cajoling, self-hating, and self-judging, and finally a serious car accident, which shook up my body and soul, to finally admit that if I wanted true love, the kind that the Song of Songs sings about, the kind that the Genesis myth says is so important, well, my Eve would have to be a Steve.
This is about much more than sex; it's about love. And that is the most natural thing in the world.
Now, if we do consider ourselves religious, this point matters, and it influences how we understand our sacred texts and traditions. Surely, a loving God could not want the tyranny of the "closet" -- an all-too-cozy metaphor for what is really a life of deceit, loneliness, and alienation. The Kirk Camerons of the world can still pretend that homosexuality is some kind of choice, pathology, or worse. But I have known both the life of the closet (for 10 years of my adult life) and the life of companionship. I know that my life with my partner is not simply about lust. It is exactly as the Genesis myth describes: a life of sharing, companionship, and love. Sure, for most people, "a man... shall hold fast to his wife." But in some cases, a woman shall hold fast to hers. And in some others, a man shall hold fast to another.
Of course, I know there are other Biblical texts that influence what some people think about homosexuality. In my book God vs. Gay?, I spend a long, long time parsing them out and show that they are obscure and ambiguous, and that they certainly do not contemplate loving, committed relationships. But anyone can interpret Biblical text; that's the easy part. As Shakespeare said, even the devil can cite scripture for his purpose. The hard, and more important, part is deciding which approach to take: one that leads to more love, or one that leads to more aloneness; one that leads to more of the holy, or one that leads to more of the shameful. As I approach these sacred texts, the story of Adam and Eve helps point the way, by reminding me that it is not good to be alone -- and it is very good to find someone with whom to share your life.
O God, our gracious Heavenly Father, we thank Thee for the fact that you have inspired men and women in all nations and in all cultures. We call you different names: some call Thee Allah; some call you Elohim; some call you Jehovah; some call you Brahma; and some call you the Unmoved Mover; some call you the Archetectonic [sic] Good. But we know that these are all names for one and the same God, and we know you are one.
And grant, O God, that we will follow Thee and become so committed to Thy way and Thy kingdom that we will be able to establish in our lives and in this world a broth- erhood. We will be able to establish here a kingdom of un- derstanding, where men will live together as brothers and respect the dignity and worth of all human personality. In the name and spirit of Jesus we pray. Amen.
Martin Luther King, Jr. From "Thou, Dear God": Prayers That Open Hearts and Spirits.
Lewis V. Baldwin is professor of religious studies at Vanderbilt University and an ordained Baptist minister. An expert on black-church traditions, he is author of The Voice of Conscience: The Church in the Mind of Martin Luther King, Jr.; There Is a Balm in Gilead: The Cultural Roots of Martin Luther King, Jr.; and Never to Leave Us Alone: The Prayer Life of Martin Luther King, Jr. He is the editor of "Thou, Dear God": Prayers That Open Hearts and Spirits, the first and only collection of prayers by Martin Luther King, Jr.
Spirituality as an Integral Aspect of World Religions: A Global Reading of the Prayers of Martin Luther King, Jr.
The prayers in "Thou, Dear God": Prayers that Open Hearts and Spirits reveal that Martin Luther King, Jr. never associated "the spiritual" with a particular religion or religious tradition. He associated a sense of "the spiritual" not only with Christianity, but with Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and other great world religions. It is at this point that his prayers are so spiritually enlightening. They are the passionate pleas, longings, and hopes of a man who were deeply wedded to his own faith tradition while, at the same time, recognizing the truths and the vitality of other traditions. In short, the prayers in "Thou, Dear God" are the prayers of all peoples of faith. They emerged out of King's unwavering belief that the Kingdom of God ultimately intersects with people of different faith claims. Thus, there is something for everyone in "Thou, Dear God." Indeed, there are lessons and challenges here even for persons who make no profession of faith.
God grant that right here in America and all over this world, we will choose the high way; a way in which men will live together as brothers. A way in which the nations of the world will beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks. A way in which every man will respect the dignity and worth of all human personality. A way in which every nation will allow justice to run down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream. A way in which men will do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with God. A way in which men will be able to stand up, and in the midst of oppression, in the midst of darkness and agony, they will be able to stand there and love their enemies, bless those persons that curse them, pray for those individuals that despite- fully use them. And this is the way that will bring us once more into that society which we think of as the brotherhood of man. This will be that day when white people, colored people, whether they are brown or whether they are yellow or whether they are black, will join together and stretch out with their arms and be able to cry out: “Free at last! Free at last! Great God Almighty, we are free at last!”
Martin Luther King, Jr. From "Thou, Dear God": Prayers That Open Hearts and Spirits.
Lewis V. Baldwin is professor of religious studies at Vanderbilt University and an ordained Baptist minister. An expert on black-church traditions, he is author of The Voice of Conscience: The Church in the Mind of Martin Luther King, Jr.; There Is a Balm in Gilead: The Cultural Roots of Martin Luther King, Jr.; and Never to Leave Us Alone: The Prayer Life of Martin Luther King, Jr. He is the editor of "Thou, Dear God": Prayers That Open Hearts and Spirits, the first and only collection of prayers by Martin Luther King, Jr.
The question of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s spirituality and spiritual life has occupied my thinking for more than two decades. It was clear to me when I began my research back in the late 1980s that King, from his earliest years growing up in Atlanta, Georgia in the 1930s and 40s, struggled with issues about a supernatural reality or divine being, about the world around him, and about how his own life figured into the larger scheme of things in the universe. Such a spiritual quest was only natural for one who was the descendant of generations of Baptist male preachers and pious, God-fearing women. Spirituality for King became that path toward a greater sense of being in communion with God and with the whole of creation. The ways in which this spiritual path unfolded over time are richly revealed in the Reverend Dr. King's sixty-eight prayers, which are brought together in an exciting and provocative book entitled, "Thou, Dear God": Prayers that Open Hearts and Spirits. Through a careful reading of this book, one is able to join King in what is unmistakably an interesting and enriching spiritual journey.
At this time of year, a blizzard of articles about the so-called December Dilemma swirls up like snowflakes rising from the floor of a snowglobe. Every year, I take calls from journalists looking to, perhaps, shake things up: to dramatize what they are sure must be a conflict between Christmas and Hanukkah, and between interfaith parents. And yet, having chosen to fully educate our children about both family religions, the dilemma essentially disappears and December becomes primarily a delight. We celebrate both Hanukkah and Christmas, with all of the trimmings, and seek to help our children to understand the religious meanings of both holidays.
Our pathway is controversial: not every interfaith couple can or should choose both religions for their children. For many families, choosing one religion makes sense, and there is a vast literature out there to help these families negotiate the holiday season. But in our local community of more than 100 interfaith families, we believe that both Christian and Jewish stories and rituals can be inspirational, are essential to literacy in Western culture, and are part of the heritage of our children.
So as Hanukkah and Christmas approach once again, here are eight reasons (some weighty and some as light as tinsel) why my interfaith family celebrates both holidays:
1. To get right to the main point, I see no theological conflict between Judaism and acknowledging the birth of a Jewish spiritual seeker who stood up for the poor and oppressed and changed the course of history (that would be Jesus). If you want to argue that Judaism and Christianity are incompatible, Easter presents more of a dilemma.
2. Generations of Jews in America grew up celebrating what they considered to be a secular Christmas. Some of these same people now turn around and tell interfaith families they shouldn't exchange Christmas presents or carve a roast beast. For my perspective, this is ironic.
3. My family believes our interfaith children should be allowed to experience the major holidays represented by both sides of our family. You could even argue that forbidding the Christmas tree only makes it more desirable.
4. Christmas trees, Yule logs, holly and mistletoe are apparently pagan pre-Christian European traditionsanyway, absorbed into the modern celebration of Christmas. I want my children to acknowledge the origins of these ancient customs, not simply write them off as "secular."
5. On Hanukkah and Christmas, the shared theme of the miracle of light (whether from a guiding star or oil that burned for eight nights) is probably not a coincidence. Both traditions function to ward off the dark of the winter solstice. This synchronicity, and the evidence that religions co-evolve, influence each other, and respond to the same human needs, provides a key moment of identity integration for interfaith children.
7. The Christian partner in an interfaith marriage may experience holiday blues if prohibited from experiencing beloved family traditions such as singing carols and baking gingerbread. Children do not benefit from having depressed parents.
8. Children thrive on ritual, and on a feeling that their parents are equal partners in the family culture. My children love the ritual of lighting Hanukkah candles, and they love the ritual of tree-trimming. We do not mix these rituals together. We do not hang dreidels on our tree or stuff gelt in our stockings. We are not creating a new religion. We are simply sharing with our children each of the separate traditions into which they were born.
Before I came out, I was sure that doing so would spell the end of my religious life. Raised in a Conservative Jewish household, I absorbed the message that being gay (let alone acting on homosexual impulses) was about the worst thing in the world. I thought it meant I could never have a family, and could not be gay and Jewish. Ironically—tragically—accepting and celebrating my sexuality was the beginning of my religious life, not the end of it. What we call in our popular culture “coming out” is an awesome spiritual experience, a gateway to the holiness of love. I was able to stop being dishonest, with myself—and with God.
In spiritual communities, bearing witness is a sacred act. We testify to the truth of the gospel, we tell stories about the operation of grace in our lives—and what we say has meaning because it is our experience and it is true. So, let me bear witness to the reality of sexual orientation—not as a choice (though some people may experience it that way, I do not), and not as a deviant pathology, but as a fiber of the soul.
My story is not everyone’s story; it’s a male story, it’s a Jewish one, and it’s by no means universal. But the truth of my experience, and that of millions of other people, is that homosexuality exists as a trait, and it can be, like heterosexuality, a gateway to holiness, or its opposite. This is our shared testimony, and it has provoked uncertainty and reflection among many sincere believers in different faith traditions, because it seems to contradict what some of our traditions say about sexuality. This is not because believers are bigoted or ignorant, but because, like the new roles of women in our society, this new information about human sexuality—not just science, but also personal testimony and witness—challenges some very old traditions. We do need to reexamine what we thought we knew, and reflect upon beliefs which seemed certain. Then again, isn’t that a consummate religious act as well?
What some folks don’t understand about “the closet” is that it’s not just a set of walls around sexual behavior. It’s a net of lies that affects absolutely everything in one’s life: how you dress, who you befriend, how you walk, how you talk. And, more importantly, how you love. How can you build authentic relationships with anyone—friends, family—under such conditions? And if you’re religious, how can you be honest with yourself and your God if you maintain so many lies, so many walls running right through the center of your soul?
When I was in the closet, I lied to myself, willing myself to believe that I was bisexual, or that I could master this evil inclination, as my religious tradition taught me. But I also lied to girlfriends, family members, friends, and teachers. I lied to employers, to students, and to casual acquaintances. I lied all the time, to everyone. Even on the rare occasions when I would sneak out of my life and into the seedy gay underworld of secrecy and sex, I would lie, making up fake names and backgrounds so no one could identify me later.
Somehow, I believed that all this lying was in the service of God. From where I sit now, the very proposition is preposterous: this notion that to be faithful to God requires deceit, falsehood, and deception. “He that works deceit shall not dwell within My house: he that tells lies shall not tarry in my sight.” (Psalms 101:7-8) “Thou shalt not bear false witness.” Surely, the “seal of God is truth,” as the Jewish rabbinic saying has it. (Shir Hashirim Rabbah 1:9) “The truth will set you free.” (John 8:32) Yet from where I hid for a decade of my adult life, I thought telling the truth would end my religious life—when in fact it enabled it to grow.
The weight of lies is so invisible and omnipresent that it eventually becomes unnoticeable, until at last it is shrugged off, out of despair, desperation, or even hope. I had no idea how much lighter life could be, or how the anxieties that I took for granted were unnecessary—and uncommon. I realized that not only were closeted people unaware of how miserable they were—but that straight people were too. People who have never had to hide the way I hid have no idea what it is like to carry around such a secret—a secret that one uncautious move can divulge. Catastrophe is always around the corner—as close as one unintentional flit of the hand or gaze of the eyes. Locker rooms, cocktail parties, football games, college dorms—all of these were places of terror for me, because, in their casual conversations and erotic temptations, all were traps that could undo years of careful self-presentation.
Of course, as we know from formerly-closeted politicians, musicians, and clergy, the deception is never as perfect as one hopes it to be. My family and some of my friends were surprised when I came out to them—but not all of them. Some said they knew all along.
But in my world of lies, I thought the deception was complete. I’ve already remarked at how tragic and offensive it is to hear homosexuality called a “lifestyle,” as if it’s like living in the country, or enjoying golf or tennis. But the closet, in my experience, is a death-style—a slow, painful draining-out and drying-up of all that makes life worthwhile—even for those of us fortunate enough to live in places where gay-bashing and state-sanctioned violence are comparatively rare. This is true even for those closeted people who seem to be happy and successful. In my work, I have met hundreds of them—mostly men, successful, often married, and with varying degrees of self-awareness. Many have children, careers, and lives that are filled with joy. Yet I almost always recognize in them the same tentative anxiety I once knew in myself—a certain illness-at-ease with life as presented, as if they are wearing clothing a size too small or too large.
To suppose that such a life is what God wants of us is to be gravely mistaken either about the closet, or God, or both. Yet this is exactly what I used to believe, which is why I try not to rush to judgment of those who believe it still. It took a decade of self-hatred, and finally, as I described earlier, a near-fatal car accident and the ending of a long-term relationship, before I at last gave up on trying to be someone I was not.
Finally, all of us can learn from these narratives—the “coming out” narrative may be familiar not just to many other gay people, of course, but also to anyone who has been “born again” or experienced religious conversion. The patterns are similar: the struggle, the surrender, the renewal; the move from one world to another. Perhaps it is for this reason that many LGBT theologians (Chris Glaser, Carter Heyward, Michael Clark among them) have described “coming out” as an important narrative frame that the gay experience provides for all of us, regardless of sexuality or gender. “Coming out is a personal epiphany, a revelation,” writes Olive Elaine Hannant. It is “a rite of vulnerability that reveals the sacred in our lives—our worth, our love, our lovemaking, our beloved, our community, our context of meaning, and our God,” writes Chris Glaser.
Coming out, in the end, is honesty. And surely truthfulness is a cornerstone of any religion worthy of the name.
The myth that the Bible forbids homosexuality—the myth of “God versus Gay”—is behind some of the most divisive and painful conflicts of our day. In this provocative, passionately argued, and game-changing book, scholar and activist Jay Michaelson shows that not only does the Bible not prohibit same-sex intimacy, but the vast majority of its teachings support the full equality and dignity of gay and lesbian people, from the first flaw it finds in creation (“It is not good for a person to be alone”) to the way religious communities grow through reflection and conscience. In short, Michaelson observes, religious people should support equality for gays and lesbians—not despite their religion, but because of it.
With close readings of the Hebrew Bible and New Testament, the latest data on the science of sexual orientation, and a sympathetic, accessible, and ecumenical approach to religious faith, Michaelson makes the case that sexual diversity is part of the beauty of nature and that the recognition of same-sex families will strengthen, not threaten, the values religious people hold dear. This is an important book for anyone who has wrestled with questions of religion and homosexuality: parents and pastors, believers and skeptics, advocates of “gay rights” and opponents of them. Whatever your views on religion and sexual diversity, God vs. Gay is a plea for a more compassionate, informed conversation—and a first step toward creating one.
Like many people walking around Wall Street this weekend, I received a pamphlet telling me that Jesus is coming to wrap up this project known as the children of God. According the the pamphlet, on May 21st, 2011 there will be a deadly earthquake. There will be dead bodies in October of this year. The saved will rise up with Christ. The rest of us will suffer damnation here on earth. The people who gave me this pamphlet are part of Project Caravan, whose slogan is:
“Have you heard the awesome news? The end of the world is almost here!”
It’s awesome because it’s the Rapture, when the Righteous rise up to Heaven but everyone else is left to live out the End Days.
If you didn’t receive a pamphlet, perhaps you saw the subway or bus shelter placards warning of the End Days? These were bought with the retirment savings of Robert Fitzpatrick, a retired MTA employee and a Staten Island resident who is so convinced of the timing of the Apocalypse that he saw no need to save for his dotage. He is not alone.
The knowledge that May 21st will mark the beginning of the end was provided to us by Harold Camping, 89, who is president of the Christian Family Radio Network. Technically, Camping said that was the day there’s be a huge earthquake and Christ would come back down to earth, but the actual end wouldn’t happen till October. There are now thousands of believers roaming the earth to warn us even though technically Camping did predict the end of the world in 1994 and he seems to have been wrong about that (unless the world did end and the actual torment is having to watch US politics devolve to the point where the Donald was actually a viable presidential candidate for more than two seconds?).
I just searched “help me be part of the Rapture” and didn’t find much useful advice. It seems I’m supposed to accept Jesus Christ as my personal savior and follow certain Evangelical Christian beliefs- like I’m morally superior to the rest of you sinners AND I get to control what you do with your bodies in the name of God- but the specifics of it are kinda unclear. If I truly believe that the End Days are here, can I spend all my savings on massages, really good champagne, and quit work? Is that going to hurt my chances of rising up and leaving you behind? Can I rack up credit card debt even though technically I won’t be able to pay it back- – or is that theft and is theft a big enough sin to actually keep me here in eternal torment AND having to pay back huge credit card balances? More importantly, can I do whatever I want until Thursday and then repent, accept Jesus Christ, live a homo and abortion free life for say 24 hours and then rise up?
As important as these questions are it is also worth asking what the possible lesson of the movement for End Days is about? The Evangelical Christians most likely to spread the word about the Rapture are probably also those who have been hurt hardest by the current economic collapse– people without high levels of education who work in industries that have mostly been outsourced elsewhere. They are also, like the rest of us, probably struggling to understand how the stock market can be “robust” and the Wall St. execs getting record bonuses even as unemployment, homelessness, and chronic hunger continue to rise.
In this sense, the appearance of Rapture-ites on Wall St. makes total sense since the workings of global capital are a great and unknowable mystery. Like all divinity stories, there is this sacred land, Wall Street, where magical and yet incomprehensible rituals and words fly about, like leverage and trading derivatives, all of which is then symbolized by numbers and signs.
And so the numbers of a thriving Dow intermingle with the equally inscrutable terms in Numerology to form a coherent set of meanings about “unrest in the Middle East,” “Osama’s death,” and, of course, the weather. Although I doubt Camping is any more accurate than the Mayans (who predict 2012 will be the end), I do think this sort of terror and desire to be set free from suffering without reason and seeing without comprehending is a universal human desire to escape. Not unlike my champagne and massage plan. Because if the world is ending this Friday, I want to make sure I have as good a chance at coming out ahead as anyone.
Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker and high-profile conservative intellectual, announced today that he is officially in the running for the Republican nomination for president. Along the way he’s been playing the politics of religion.
In the speeches and media appearances he did in preparation for his run, he has emphasized two things. The first is the importance of God and morality in the public square, referencing his own conversion to Catholicism to give him credibility. The second is to rail against the dangers of Islam in America.
This two-pronged approach underscores just how far we have come in America on issues of religious tolerance, and also how far we have to go.
Just a half-century ago, John F. Kennedy’s Catholic faith was widely viewed as a significant liability to his presidential aspirations. Kennedy had to do the opposite of what Gingrich appears to be doing: effectively de-emphasize his faith, and say that it would play no role whatsoever in informing his public acts. “I am not the Catholic candidate for president,” he told the American Association of Newspaper Editors in April 1960. “I am the Democratic party’s candidate for president who happens to be Catholic. I do not speak for the Catholic Church on issues of public policy, and no one in that church speaks for me.”
The irony, of course, is that many of the same slanders leveled at the Catholic Church are now leveled at Islam in America. Catholicism was considered incompatible with liberty, democracy and pluralism. Any inroads made by Catholics into the corridors of power was considered a threat to the American way of life. Catholics were considered loyal to the autocratic Pope, not the American flag. Catholic politicians would enact policies to advantage their Church and hurt American values, everything from appointing an Ambassador to the Vatican to sending public funds to parochial schools.
The ‘No Popery’ signs of previous eras feel remarkably like the ‘No Sharia’ signs of today. The view of the Catholic faith as inherently incompatible with American values mimics today’s view of Islam. And the hysteria about the effects of increasing Catholic influence on American culture sound precisely like today’s fears about Muslims. Norman Vincent Peale, a powerful Protestant minister and a leading anti-Catholic anti-Kennedy voice, put the matter of Kennedy’s possible election in stark terms to a Who’s Who group of conservative Protestant leaders: “Our American culture is at stake.”
The historian Arthur Schlesinger Sr. wrote that anti-Catholicism was the “deepest bias in the history of the American people.” The fact that Gingrich can proudly advertise his conversion to Catholicism as a personal and presidential asset is a sign of how much progress we’ve made. But it is profoundly un-American to replace one bias with another, and even more troubling that a man whose Catholic forbears experienced discrimination because of their religion should turn around and peddle such prejudice himself.
The forces of inclusiveness in America always turn back the forces of intolerance – we’ve seen it in the defeat of anti-Semitism, anti-Catholicism and segregation. Gingrich, who has a PhD in history, is well aware of this. Which makes it all the more surprising that he is willing to risk being remembered on the wrong side of that divide.
The death or defeat of an enemy brings on a difficult moral conundrum: how to resolve our baser instincts or feelings of having achieved "justice" for a wrong with the principles of our religious and ethical traditions. Beacon Broadside asked several of our authors for their responses to the death of Osama bin Laden, and what they feel is required of them by their respective faiths. Yesterday, we posted the answers of Eboo Patel, Susan Campbell, and Dan McKanan. Today, we share the responses of Jay Michaelson, Rev. Marilyn Sewell, and Christopher Stedman.
Jay Michaelson is the author of the forthcoming book God vs. Gay? The Religious Case for Equality. He is the founding director of Nehirim, the leading national provider of community programming for LGBT Jews and their allies. In 2009, Michaelson was included on the "Forward 50" list of the fifty most influential Jewish leaders in America.
The Jewish tradition is crystal clear that one is never to celebrate the downfall of one's enemies, even though the human tendency is to do so. We see this pattern again and again.
For example, Proverbs 24:17 reads, “If your enemy falls, do not exult; If he trips, let your heart not rejoice.” Note that Proverbs 11:10 says that, “When the wicked perish, there are shouts of joy," but that does not mean there should be such shouts. The two verses together suggest that while it is human nature to rejoice when our enemy suffers, we are called upon to do better.
Another example is at the drowning of the Egyptians in the Red Sea. At the time, the Children of Israel sang the famous Song of the Sea, whose lyrics explicitly rejoice in the death of the Egyptians (Exodus 15:4). But in The Talmud (Megilla 10b, Sanhedrin 39b), a story is told that God rebukes the angels for singing along. “My creatures are drowning in the sea and you want to sing," God says. Once again: it is human nature to rejoice, but we are called upon to do better.
Jews around the world recently concluded the Passover Seder. This entire ritual celebrates the Exodus from Egypt, and part of that story is indeed the demise of the Egyptians. Yet when the ten plagues are recounted, the tradition is to spill a drop of wine for each one. Our joy is incomplete when others suffer.
Yes, it is human to fist-pump in the air when a murderer like Osama Bin Ladin is killed. But such vulgar displays of our basest emotions is precisely what religion is meant to curb.
Author photo by Sebastian Collett.
The Rev. Dr. Marilyn Sewell is Minister Emerita of the First Unitarian Church of Portland, Oregon, and is the subject of the documentary film, "Raw Faith." She is the author of several books, and edited four volumes for Beacon Press, including Breaking Free: Women of Spirit at Midlife and Beyond.
I find myself deeply disturbed by the death and collective responses to the death of Osama bin Laden. When I say "disturbed," I don't mean merely intellectually, but psychologically, spiritually, and even physically. I have found myself drained of energy, withdrawn. And I've had to ask myself why. Shouldn't I be happy, gratified that a monster of evil is now gone from the face of the earth? I note the celebrating crowds on television, in New York and Washington, DC, and understand their very human response, but I'm not there.
I think my disturbance comes from having to contend with conflicting values that all have their measure of truth--and yet none has the whole truth. And so I'm trying to reconcile these disparate values.
With the rest of the nation, I have witnessed the overwhelming grief of the families of the 9/11 victims. I have seen the pictures of the dead, read their stories. I have heard the goodbye messages of spouses, the children left without a father, the way victims jumped to their deaths, some holding the hand of a friend. I understand why the survivors want justice, and whatever closure they can find, and so they welcome the news of bin Laden's death.
I also understand the significance for our nation, in bin Laden's death. He has been not only the perpetrator of much suffering and death, but he had become the symbol of our impotence in failing to rid the world of terrorism. He has been thumbing his nose at us for ten years, making us fear what might happen next. The President's main job is to protect his people, and so Obama had to pursue Osama bin Laden and kill him.
Which brings me to the next point. I have little doubt that the Seals were ordered to kill Bin Laden, whether or not he was armed, whether or not he surrendered. Taking bin Laden prisoner would have invited an international media circus for a trial that might have lasted years--and further provoked all kinds of national and international conflict. We weren't going to let that happen. He was going to be killed and then buried at sea. He was shot first in the chest, I would guess, as would be the normative first shot, and then shot in the head, to assure the death. I also understand the necessity of this decision, and if in fact I am correct, I do not fault Obama for proceeding in this way.
On the other hand, I am a minister and a wife and a mother. I abhor violence. In particular, gun violence disturbs me, for I have personally lost family members to gun violence, as have so many others in our gun-crazy country.
And then I imagine the scene in the compound that night. I imagine the fear that everyone in that compound must have felt as the Seals attacked. I expect Osama bin Laden knew he was going to die. One of his wives watched him shot to death, another identified the body. A number of his children were present in compound. What did the wives and children experience?
Still another dimension to this whole scene is that of the warriors. The Seals carried out what appears to have been an almost flawless plan in dangerous circumstances: their courage and skill are admired by all. And yet the man who killed bin Laden and whoever killed the three others will have to live with the memory of that night: the fear in the eyes of those who were killed or wounded, the gaping wounds, the blood pouring out--all this, and the knowledge that they they took a human life. This is what we ask of our warriors. To do these horrific deeds for us. We don't want to see the pictures. Obama spared us from that.
So what it comes down to, for me, is this: the terrible grayness of morality. The evil that we're all drawn into. The violence that is a part of our lives. The fallenness of us all. There are no good guys and bad guys, except in relative terms. We can only try to see as clearly as we can and act with as much integrity as we can. The Kingdom of God is not as yet at hand. Heaven help us.
Christopher Stedman is the Interfaith and Community Service Fellow for the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard University and the Managing Director of State of Formation at the Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue. He is at work on a memoir to be published by Beacon Press.
Last Sunday night, I was preparing to go to bed early for the first time in months when I made the mistake of checking Twitter. I’m no longer a Christian so I do not begin and end each day in prayer like I once did, and it’s probably fair to say that Twitter has become a replacement ritual.
And there it was: Osama bin Laden had been located. Osama bin Laden had been captured. Osama bin Laden had been killed.
My twitter feed erupted with emotions. Cheers, jeers; even tears. But mostly cheers.
I understand the impulse to celebrate such news, but the tenor of some of what I’ve heard and seen troubles me in the same way I was bothered by those burning American flags in the Middle East nearly ten years ago. As a Humanist, I struggle to understand the “eye for an eye” mentality. In the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson, a forefather of modern Humanism: “That which dominates our imaginations and our thoughts will determine our lives and character. Therefore, it behooves us to be careful what we worship, for what we are worshiping we are becoming.” Today I worry about what America is becoming.
In times of trouble, I often reflect on the unifying words of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. “Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that.” he wrote. “Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that. Hate multiplies hate, violence multiplies violence, and toughness multiplies toughness in a descending spiral of destruction.”
I am concerned when I see people celebrating death; when I hear word that thousands of my fellow Bostonians flocked to Boston Commons Sunday night for what was essentially a pep rally. Again, I understand the desire to mark this occasion, but I wish we could muster the same enthusiasm to celebrate the importance of life – to unite in the face of domestic intolerance, not just that which lurks in evil lairs overseas.
Named by US News & World Report as one of America’s Best Leaders of 2009, Eboo Patel is the founder and Executive Director of Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC), a Chicago-based institution building the global interfaith youth movement. Author of the award-winning book Acts of Faith: The Story of an American Muslim, the Struggle for the Soul of a Generation, Eboo is also a regular contributor to the Washington Post, National Public Radio and CNN. He is a member of President Obama’s Advisory Council of the White House Office of Faith Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, and holds a doctorate in the sociology of religion from Oxford University, where he studied on a Rhodes scholarship.
One hundred years ago, the great African-American scholar W.E.B. DuBois famously wrote, "The problem of the 20th century will be the problem of the color line."
History proved DuBois correct. His century saw the struggles against, and ultimately the victory over, systems that separated and subjugated people based on race -- from colonialism in India to Jim Crow in the U.S. to apartheid in South Africa.
No American did more than Martin Luther King Jr. -- whom America pauses to honor today -- to address the problem of the color line. He spearheaded the marches that revealed the brutality of segregation, made speeches that reminded Americans that the promise of their nation applied to all citizens and expertly pressured the nation's leaders in Washington to pass landmark civil rights legislation.
But to confine King's role in history only to the color line -- as giant as that challenge is, and as dramatic as King's contribution was -- is to reduce his greatness. In one of his final books, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community, King showed that race was one part of his broader concern with human relations at large: "This is the great new problem of mankind. We have inherited ... a great 'world house' in which we have to live together -- black and white, Easterner and Westerner, Gentile and Jew, Catholic and Protestant, Muslim and Hindu ... Because we can never again live apart, we must learn somehow to live with each other in peace."
This ethos, as King's examples make clear, applies not only to the question of race, but to faith as well. In the same way as the headlines of the 20th century read of conflict between races, headlines in our times are full of violence between people of different religions. Indeed, what the color line was to the 20th century, the faith line might be to the 21st.
For those of us for who celebrate Christmas, it is a holiday rich with potential--potential for joy and potential for angst. I have experienced Christmases all along that continuum. This Christmas some will be reminded of those loved ones who are gone from us and will be present in spirit but no longer in body; some of us will be far from our children; some of us will find it stressful to get into the Christmas festivities, while others will find it fun; some will be reunited with those they love and haven't seen for a while; some will find their usual loneliness only the more acute; other will receive an engagement ring and the hope of love that will last so long as they both shall live. Yes, the whole human catastophe!
That's what Jesus was born into, as well. Mary's long ride on a donkey, in the bitter cold. No room in the inn. The loving arms of Joseph. Shelter in the stable. The miracle of the star that brought promise to those struggling. The wondering eyes of the shepherds. The gifts of the Magi.
I have had--well, I suppose it is 69 Christmases! On the whole, I'd have to say that they weigh in fairly heavily on the sadness scale, for all the usual reasons: alcoholism in the family, divorce, separation from loved ones, loneliness. But even the childhood Christmases, problematic as they were, had their lovely moments. We never bought a tree--we went out into some farmer's field, crawled under the barbed wire, and cut a tree down, which is what everybody else did, too. The aunts and uncles and cousins came to my grandparents' home, where we lived, and amazing smells emanated from the kitchen, while the men smoked, joked, and told stories in the parlor. My little sister, Donna, always woke me up at 5:00 AM on Christmas morning, to see what Santa had brought. My grandfather always gave each one of us children a shiny new silver dollar. We children always gave our father, who worked in the oil field, a metal lunch box, which he promptly "lost." Years later, he told us that those metal boxes rattled in the car when the roughnecks returned from the oilfield, preventing them from sleeping.
Now I'm finding that it's the simple things that seem to hold me close and keep me warm: making gingerbread cookies with my grandchildren; seeing the Christmas boats go by on the Willamette; wrapping little "secret Santa" gifts; planning the details of a Christmas dinner; talking on the phone (unlimited minutes!) to those far away; seeing a dog in a silly Santa hat; trimming our tree; hearing the familiar carols; and most of all, feeling safe and feeling loved.
That's the prayer, then, that I'm sending out for the whole wide world during this special season: I wish that every single person--every man, woman, and especially every child, could be warm and safe and loved. That's the heart of Christmas for me. Amen and amen.
A lot of Christians are going to attend a "Good" Friday service this week and hear how Jesus loved us so much he gave himself out of love for us, to save us. This is what is supposed to make his torture and murder "good." They'll be told that if they love him back enough, they will be transformed to love in the same way and forgive unto death.
This is a not so much an idea of love so much as an idea of unrequited passivity. And it encourages acquiescence to evil. The Canadian Catholic Bishops actually apologized in 1990 for teaching these ideas to victims of domestic violence. The Vatican has not apologized yet, but it might be too distracted right now with sexual abuse scandals to notice its been using this bad idea of love to shame victims into silence.