Guest Blog: My Daughter Maggie’s Report on India

Rickshaw

Today marks our 2-week anniversary in India and it feels like our sabbatical experience has really begun in earnest. As expected, India is a radical departure from the elegant Tuscan countryside we so enjoyed for the last two months. But it’s exciting to be here! India is absolutely teeming with life. Kerry and I are already firing on more cylinders. And the kids are thriving–marveling at the cultural kaleidoscope and relishing inter-generational living (with my parents just downstairs).

It’s not perfect, of course. We miss some creature comforts; but we’re hammering out solutions every day. If you’ve checked our blog lately, you know that we don’t love the house we’ve ended up in. Also, our ears are ringing from the constant street noise. This weekend we took a trip out-of-town, and the silence was actually unnerving. Finally, the kids brought lice(!) home after just one week at school, which was appalling. (And of course Kerry and I did not escape unscathed). All five of us did a round of medical shampoo last week, and we’ll do the second round tomorrow to catch the remaining eggs that will have hatched. But Oscar is still itching his scalp and saying he has “ants in his hair,” so the situation is definitely not resolved. The crazy thing is, Indians don’t seem to think lice is a big deal at all; no need to even keep the kids home from school! We’re going to move to braids every day for Eva. And hopefully get some kind of preventative spray shipped to us from home that we can spray on their heads every day before school for the next six months!

Kerry and I started a daily Mysore-style yoga class last week at a shala called Yoga Indea, and it’s everything we hoped for. Our teacher, Pratima, is very strict in an exhilarating way. She scolds us when something is not just right. And she’s constantly telling us to “feel the work.” Kerry is doing great, even though it’s all so foreign to his body. And this is definitely the most serious and frequent yoga I’ve ever done. Most importantly, we’re both moved by the opportunity to engage in this project together, side-by-side. Our class meets each weekday morning from 11:15-12:15. Afterwards, we stop by the coconut stand for some electrolyte-rich coconut water, and then head over to the kids’ school to pick them up. It’s been really lovely so far. And how great that it’s only just beginning!

We are all in near-constant awe as we walk the streets of Mysore. As time passes, I think we’ll stop noticing how “other” this all is. But for now, here’s a little taste of some things that have grabbed our attention as we move about town:
-Children playing on an improvised swing hanging from scaffolding; the swing seat was made of a bound pile of recycled diaper boxes.
-A whole valley full of white sheets and towels drying on lines–stretching over at least a full city block. (In theory, air-drying clothes is kind of romantic. But not on the side of a busy road in a polluted city).
-Our security guard burning (presumably our) trash on the side of the road, not 50 feet from our front gate.
-An incredible funeral procession that started in front of the children’s school and passed right by our house. In it, a dead body, clothed in a loincloth, sat upright, tied to a throne, covered by a canopy of hundreds of yellow marigolds. The throne rested on a litter, carried by four men. A group of mourners encircled the body, wailing and moaning with a somber drumbeat accompaniment. After about 15 minutes, the procession began to move around the neighborhood before heading across town to the burial ground. (Kerry commented that the tradition couldn’t be great for public health).
-I don’t think we’ve seen a single stop sign here. Instead, every vehicle (double or triple) honks at every intersection; this explains a lot of the noise pollution.
-There are so many animals roaming the streets, especially cows. Someone told my mother that cows are Mysore’s “speed bumps.” That’s actually quite lovely, isn’t it?
-Because there are so many animals, it is imperative to walk with your eyes down at all times to navigate the animal dung, which is everywhere. (This even though Mysore is India’s second cleanest city).
-Rickshaws are our main mode of transportation and the children think they’re pretty great. They’re not at all safe, of course. They’re open on both sides and they weave in and out of traffic, tailgate to the extreme and barrel the wrong way down one-way streets without hesitation. They’re designed for two adults to fit very comfortably. And we can technically fit our whole immediate family in one if the boys sit on our laps. Even that seems like a bit of a stretch to us. But our jaws drop regularly when we pass rickshaws literally dripping with people. 4 adults. Even 5 adults. 10 children. Crazy.
-Everyone seems to litter here, without a second thought. It’s pretty mind-blowing, since littering feels unthinkable in the United States.
-Mysore’s world-famous Dasara festival just ended. We mostly avoided the celebratory events because of the crowds. But we attended a purportedly “less-crowded” dress rehearsal of the Torchlight Parade one night. We found ourselves in a shocking crush of people trying to push through a narrow gate into the stadium where the parade would take place. A line would have worked well, but instead it was a stampede. It’s not at all hard to imagine the fatal scene on the bridge in northern India last week. Definitely not a situation we’re hoping to repeat–especially with kids.

Eva turns five next month. It’s a big birthday and we wish she felt more settled socially. She has made a friend at school from Ohio, and she’s happy about that. But she’s generally (and understandably) a little intimidated by the language gap. (As a side-note, recently Oscar refused to ask an Indian waiter for more water. “I don’t speak Spanish!” he insisted). But back to Eva. She really misses the community and sense of belonging she feels at home. She vacillates between saying she wants to go home immediately, (because she misses ALL her friends), and wishing we could stay in India forever (because it’s so exciting and colorful here!) All things tolled, this is not actually a bad mental place for her to be in right now. But if anyone out there feels moved to send a birthday card her way in the next week or so, I know she would really appreciate it. Little connections to home feel extra-important while we’re still getting settled here. Our new address is:

The Lehnerd-Reilly Family
No. 2639/1, II Main, Valmiki Road
V.V. Mohalla
Mysore, Karnataka 570002
India

Thanks so much to everyone who’s keeping us in your thoughts. We’re happy to report that all is well and we’re on our way to creating a full life here. Kerry made a rather profound “sabbatical observation” just the other day: “People without kids don’t understand that ‘doing nothing’ is possibly doing too much.” And so we keep going.

Love,
Maggie, Kerry, Eva, Oscar and Orlando

Islam, Violence and Double Standards

Christian Leadership

(This is the third in a series on Islam as liberation theology. It is based on Karen Armstrong’s Muhammad: a prophet for our times. London: Harper Perennial 2006)

Since 9/11 the West has vilified Islam as a violent religion and Muhammad as a blood thirsty fanatic. Since the mid-sixties, liberation theology has suffered similar accusations. Critics ask: What about Islam and violence, jihad and holy war? Isn’t Islam – isn’t liberation theology – inherently violent?

The question is ironic.

That’s because it is almost invariably posed by those wedded to the nation Martin Luther King called “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.” Conservatives there identify themselves as Christian. Yet they are among the strongest supporters of spending $2 billion per day (!) on the military. They love holy war.

Back in 1954, their government overthrew a democratically elected head of a Muslim state in favor of a brutal puppet, Reza Palavi. He proceeded to institute a quarter-century-long reign of terror in Iran, the birthplace of the Islamic currents so feared by Americans today.

Additionally the government of these Christians unconditionally supports Israel, a state which since 1948 has evicted Muslims from their ancestral homes in Palestine killing tens of thousands in the process. The majority of U.S. Christians not only support Israel in general (often on religious grounds), but even its possession of a vast arsenal of nuclear “weapons of mass destruction.”

In response, Muslims have used box cutters, stones, sling shots, primitive IEDs and homemade rockets, (along, one day, with hijacked planes) to defend themselves and counter-attack against forces that have declared a perpetual war against them.

Why this condemnation of the violence of the impoverished adherents Islam alongside virtual worship of the “Gods of Metal” by rich imperialists? The answer lies in Muhammad’s attitude towards war.

Like the vast majority of Christians since the 4th century, including our own day, and along with virtually all the prophets of the Jewish Testament, Muhammad was not a pacifist. Remarkably – once again like most Christians – Muhammad was a proponent of just war theory. In fact, he pioneered the theory’s development far ahead of its Christian proponents. Following its dictates, common sense and Muslim doctrine, the poor, he insisted, have the right to self-defense.

Yes, Muhammad recognized the right to jihad. Most of us are familiar with the term which is translated for us as “holy war.” Actually, the word means “struggle.” It signifies resistance to the forces of self-seeking within the individual believer, the Muslim community, and against those forces as represented by those who attack from without.

It’s that latter application that makes Islam so threatening to the West. The West wants no part of people who defend themselves against western depredations. Meanwhile western powers themselves claim not only the right of self-defense but even the prerogative of “preemptive strikes.”

What the West expects in return on the part of those attacked – especially if the attacked are “religious” – is a pacifism that for more than seventeen hundred years has never been a major part of “Christendom’s” belief system. As a matter of fact, western Christians tend to ridicule pacifists as unrealistic, unpatriotic, even cowardly “bleeding hearts.”

No, the West wants an enemy that simply rolls over for colonialism (in Israel), wars of aggression (in Iraq), policies of torture and illegal imprisonment, drone strikes, mass killings of innocent civilians, support of unpopular dictators, rigged elections, and a host of other crimes. In fact, when religious people defend themselves, westerners cry “foul” and condemn their victims for being hypocritical and “violent.” If the self-defenders are Christians influenced by liberation theology, they are characterized as Marxist, communist, totalitarian dupes. If they are not, their religion itself is perverse. Once again, all of this is as if westerners themselves were somehow religiously pacifist. They clearly are not!

Do you see why I used the term “ironic?” Actually, a stronger word is required but is likely unprintable.

And there’s more to this question of violence and Islam . . . . Muhammad’s own experience of being driven from Mecca by opponents of Islam closely tracks that of Israel’s treatment of Arabs in Palestine.

This becomes evident by recalling Muhammad’s basic story. It’s the account of a prophet and his followers attempting to return to a homeland from which (like today’s Palestinians) they have been exiled by force. Here are the elements of Muhammad’s career:

• An impoverished merchant from Mecca
• Living in a period of cultural crisis
• Characterized by neglect of the poor and vulnerable
• Receives revelations from God
• Centralizing surrender (Islam), humility, equality and peace
• He gradually draws to himself many devoted followers
• Drawn especially from society’s castoffs and despised – especially women
• This community is squeezed out of Mecca
• Its dwellings confiscated by the ruling class
• Now based in Medina, Muhammad and his followers (Muslims) wage a decades-long struggle to return home
• The struggle centralizes guerrilla attacks, economic blockade, “sit-ins,” and non-violent demonstration
• (At times, it is true, the tactics stood in conscious violation of basic Muslim commitment to peace and reconciliation)
• By these means, Muslims finally return to Mecca
• And establish Islam as the dominant religion of Arabia

In view of these details, it’s no wonder that Palestinians claiming “right of return” find inspiration in Muhammad. It’s no wonder that sister and brother Muslims throughout the world sympathize with the Palestinian cause and recognize Muhammad as a prophet for our time.

It’s no wonder that the U.S. and Israel vilify Muhammad’s religion so attractive to the impoverished people they are so intent on oppressing.

(Next week: Islam and Women)

A Pope and a Pimp Went into St. Peter’s to Pray (Sunday Homily)

Pharisee_and_the_Publican
Readings for 30th Sunday in Ordinary Time: SIR 35: 12-14, 11-18; PS 34: 2=3, 17=18, 19, 28; 2 TM 4: 6-8, 16-18; LK 18: 9-14. http://usccb.org/bible/readings/102713.cfm

“A pope and a pimp went into St. Peter’s to Pray.” That’s the way scripture scholar, John Dominic Crossan, conveys the shock that must have been felt by Jesus’ audience when he opened this morning’s gospel parable by even joining the words “Pharisee” and “tax collector” in the same sentence. It’s like putting “pope” and “pimp” together. It jars the ear. And why would a pimp be praying at all?

Nevertheless, Jesus begins: “A Pharisee and a tax collector went up to the Temple to pray.” Customarily homilists use this parable to reinforce conventional wisdom about pride and humility. The Pharisee was proud, they say. The tax collector was humble. Be like the tax collector.

I however think there’s something much more challenging and fundamental going on in this parable. The focus of Jesus’ story is not pride vs. humility. It’s about rejecting the Pharisee’s conventional morality. The parable even calls us to scrap conventional wisdom about pride and humility.

More positively, the story is a summons to enter God’s Kingdom by identifying with the poor and despised. It also explains why the conventionally good simply cannot enter the Kingdom of God.

Let me explain.

Think in terms of popes and pimps. Popes are generally respected people. They’re religious leaders. Wherever they go, crowds flock around them just to get a glimpse, a blessing, or possibly even a smile or touch.

Pharisees in Jesus’s time enjoyed similar respect with the common people. Pharisees were religious teachers and textbook examples of conventional morality. They usually did what the one in today’s gospel said he did. They kept the law. The Pharisee in today’s reading was probably right; chances are he wasn’t like most people.

Generally Pharisees, were not greedy, dishonest, or adulterers. Or as their exemplar in Luke put it, he was not like the tax collector alongside him in the Temple. Pharisees gave tithes on all they possessed – to help with Temple upkeep.

On the other hand, tax collectors in Jesus’ day were notorious crooks. Like pimps, they were usually despised. Tax collectors were typically dishonest and greedy. They were adulterers too. They took advantage of their power by extorting widows unable to pay in money into paying in kind.

In other words, the Pharisee’s prayer was correct on all counts.

But, we might ask, what about the tax collector’s prayer: “O God, be merciful to me, a sinner?” A beautiful prayer, no?

Don’t be so quick to say “yes.”

Notice that this tax collector doesn’t repent. He doesn’t say, like the tax collector Zacchaeus in Luke’s very next chapter, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much (LK 19:8). There is no sign of repentance or of willingness to change his profession on the part of this particular crook.

And yet Jesus concludes his parable by saying: ”I tell you, the latter (i.e. the tax collector) went home justified, not the former. . .” Why?

I think the rest of today’s liturgy of the word supplies an answer.

Look at those readings again. They’re all about God’s partiality towards the poor, oppressed, orphans, widows and the lowly – those who need God’s special protection, because the culture at large tends to write them off or ignore them. Typically, they’re the ones conventionality classifies as deviant. The Jewish morality of Jesus time called them all “unclean.”

However all of them – even the worst – were especially deal to Jesus’ heart. And this not because they were “virtuous,” but simply because of their social location. Elsewhere, Jesus specifically includes tax collectors (and prostitutes) in that group. In MT 21: 38-42, he tells the Pharisees, “Prostitutes and tax collectors will enter God’s Kingdom before you religious professionals.”

More specifically, in this morning’s first reading, Sirach says that the poor, oppressed, orphans, widows and the lowly are the ones Yahweh fittingly pays attention to. That same theme appears in the refrain we all sang together in today’s responsorial psalm, “The Lord hears the cry of the poor.”

As a result, those who simply belong to that category – the poor and oppressed – are “justified” in virtue of their social (non) status. The word “justified” means “made just” – or fit to enter God’s Kingdom where justice is the order of the day.

Similarly justified are the non-poor who imitate Sirach’s “God of Justice” by conscious identification with those considered “sinners” by the prevailing culture. Those who humble themselves in that way are like Sirach’s “God of justice” who hears the cry of the oppressed, the wail of the orphan, the prayer of the lowly. Or (again) as our responsorial psalm put it today: “The Lord hears the cry of the poor.”

But why would a good person like the Pharisee be excluded from God’s Kingdom? Does God somehow bar his entry? I don’t think so. God’s Kingdom is for everyone.

Rather it was because men like the Pharisee in the temple don’t really want to enter that place of GREAT REVERSAL, where the first are last, the rich are poor, the poor are rich, and where (as I said) prostitutes and tax collectors are rewarded.

The Pharisee excludes himself! In fact, the temple’s holy people wanted nothing to do with the people they considered “unclean.” In other words, it was impossible for Pharisees and the Temple Establishment to conceive of a Kingdom open to the unclean. And even if there was such a Kingdom, these purists didn’t want to be there.

Let’s put that in terms we can understand in our culture.

Usually rich white people don’t want to live next door to poor people or in the same neighborhood with black people – especially if those in question aren’t rich like them.

Imagine God’s Kingdom in terms of the ghetto. Rich white people don’t want to be there.

But ironically, according to this morning’s readings – according to Jesus – the “undesirables” who live there are the ones to whom the Kingdom of God belongs. They are the favorites of the God who Sirach says is “not unduly partial to the weak.” Rather God is fittingly partial to them as the Sirach reading itself and the rest of today’s liturgy of the word make perfectly clear!

This means that any separation from God’s chosen poor amounts to excluding oneself from the Kingdom white Christians spend so much time obsessing about.

So today’s readings are much more radical than usually understood. The parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector – of the pope and the pimp in St. Peter’s – is not an affirmation of conventional morality. It rejects such ethnocentric hypocrisy! Jesus’ parable is not even about approving conventional wisdom concerning pride and humility.

As always with Jesus’ teachings, it is about the Kingdom of God – about those who belong and those who exclude themselves.

In practice, this realization suggests for starters that:

• It’s no badge of honor to subscribe to conventional morality or conventional wisdom.
• Christians are called to be counter-cultural – more in solidarity with those we associate with pimps than with popes.
• For “Americans” this means discounting middle class morality and (white) “family values” as criteria of faith.
• According to Jesus, by itself such conformity actually excludes one from participation in God’s promised future.
• Instead authentic faith means living a life of solidarity with the poor – making their issues our own.
• Hence Christians should be in the forefront of movements on behalf of the poor.
• For example, rather than joining “devout Catholics” like Paul Ryan in leading crusades to cut back food stamp programs, we should be applying pressure to expand them.
• The same holds true for public housing, Medicaid, Social Security, and voting rights.

The U.S. Is Indeed the Great Satan (Shaytan): Muhammad as Liberationist Prophet

Satan

(This is the second in a series on Islam as liberation theology and Muhammad as a prophet for our time. The series is inspired by Karen Armstrong’s “Muhammad: Prophet for Our Time” (London: Harper Perennial, 2006)

To understand Islam as liberation theology, it is important to place Muhammad in his historical and economic context. That setting shares important elements with the world’s current socio-economic circumstances shaped by an ethic of corporate globalization which ignores responsibilities for the world’s most vulnerable. Contextualizing Muhammad also helps us understand why Muslims consistently describe the United States as “the Great Satan,” or more accurately as the Great Shaytan.

Begin by trying to understand early seventh century Mecca. By the time the prophet had received his call, Mecca was already a prosperous focal point for Arabian culture. It had remained independent of control by both the Byzantine and Persian Empires which were then fighting for regional supremacy.

However, both empires found the hostile desert terrain of the Arabian Peninsula too forbidding for them to concern themselves with the area’s mostly Bedouin population. Moreover those constantly moving herds-people resisted domination in virtue of their fierce independence and absolute commitment to their tribes and ancestral ethos.

Bedouin culture lionized the karim – the tribal hero who was courageous, arrogant, violent and vengeful.The karim ideal was absolutely generous (not to say profligate) in dealing with his own people, but ruthless with others who were always considered inferior and expendable. Mired in chronic circumstances of scarcity, the karim economy required periodic wealth-redistribution in the form of “acquisition raids” on neighboring clans. Those attacks considered normal and necessary by the standards of the time, were careful to pillage but not kill – if only to avoid reprisals and vendettas.

In the 7th century, all of this was changing with the emergence of a strong commercial class interested in maintaining inter-tribal peace for purposes of facilitating business interactions. Hence, the merchant class developed a culture and ethos markedly different from the Bedouins’. Peace and order became much more important to doing business than they had been to Bedouin tribes struggling over scarce pastures. So conflict, violence, vendetta and vengeance were outlawed. Acquisition raids were particularly taboo.

This need for pragmatic peace was intensified by new technology related to commerce. The recent invention of a saddle for camels had dramatically increased the volume of goods capable of being transported. Consequently the quantity of foods, sandalwood, fabrics, spices and other products sold throughout the Arabian Peninsula increased dramatically. This impacted Muhammad’s birthplace (Mecca) in especially powerful ways.

Long since, Mecca had been important to Arab merchants. A “miraculous” water source (Zamzam) had been discovered there making it a natural stopping point for caravans circulating among a series of markets set up around the periphery of the Arabian Peninsula. A temple (Kabah) identifying the spring as a divine gift had been erected and included representations of all tribal deities from across Arabia. The final market of the year was held in Mecca and tribal merchants celebrated with inclusive “ecumenical” religious rites at the Kabah. There circumambulations of the Kabah helped the pilgrims integrate their mercantile journeys around the Arabian Peninsula into the divine scheme of things.

With all of this, Mecca became the logical location for a new religion emphasizing an empire-resistant trans-tribal Arab unity focused on peace and non-violence. At the time of Muhammad’s birth, there was great expectation of an Arabian prophet to crystalize such often-unspoken religious aspirations coherent with Mecca’s commercial and religious standing.

Before that would happen however, a downside to cultural dominance by the commercial class emerged. Slowly but surely tribal ties with their ancillary ethos were weakened. Ancestrally established obligations towards the widow, orphan, and infirm members of the community became less pressing and even rejected. Tribal arrogance reasserted itself in a new form of self-sufficiency that implicitly (and at times explicitly) denied the need for what we today would call “social justice.”

All of this strongly impacted the young Muhammad. True, he was born into one of Mecca’s leading commercial families. However, it had recently fallen on hard times. Muhammad himself had been orphaned early on. He was handed over to a series of clan care-takers who lovingly trained him in the ways of business and commerce. Though able strong and charming, Muhammad struggled to find his place in Mecca’s bustling marketplace. He would never forget those early struggles or his (non) status as an orphan. The poor would be centralized in his new religion.

At last, Muhammad improved his economic life by marrying a wealthy widow and businesswoman called Khadija. (In a culture that encouraged polygamy, she always remained his favorite wife.) It was Khadija who served as the prophet’s main support, confidante and advisor as he experienced his surprising call to become the prophet his culture generally expected.

Muhammad’s vocation story is reminiscent of similar accounts of Jewish Testament prophets. In a cave, he’s seized by God’s Spirit experienced (in Rudolf Otto’s terms) as fascinans et tremenda. The Spirit commands him to “recite.” (Qur’an means “recitations”).

Muhammad objects; he is unworthy. He is no orator or poet; he can’t even read or write. Yet he is literally pressed into the service of Allah and begins reciting sutras of extraordinary beauty and depth of meaning – even by exalted Arab standards of poetry. After an initial experience of this type, he is abandoned by the Spirit for a period of two years, only to have it return with even greater insistence and frequency. It would remain with him for 23 years, leading him to speak out on all manner of community problems.

The thrust of the prophet’s revelations was profoundly counter-cultural. It contradicted not only tribal arrogance, but also the ostentatious profligacy of the karim as well as the self-sufficiency of the commercial classes. Instead, Muhammad’s faith called for humility, service of others, complete submission (the very meaning of the word “Islam”), and care for the poor and weak.

Belief was to be backed up by action – almsgiving was centralized. But there were also ritual reminders of Islamic commitment. Five times each day Muslims were to adopt the position of a slave before Allah – on believer’s knees, prostrate, with forehead touching the ground. With all of this, it is no wonder that the first Muslims (like the first Hebrews and Christians) came from the poorer classes, with women more receptive than men.

Islam as conceived by Muhammad was inclusive and tolerant of other faiths – especially the ones just mentioned. Along with the rest of the Arab world, Muhammad deeply admired Judaism and Christianity for having their own Sacred Scriptures. Now with the emergence of the Qur’an, Islam joined that club as well. The notion of converting sisters and brothers in faith was a foreign concept for Islam’s great prophet.

Because of its counter-cultural thrust, the rest of Muhammad’s story is one of rejection and persecution by the guardians of the status quo. Muhammad is driven into exile in Medina. But eventually he returns to Mecca. His trans-tribal faith succeeds in uniting the Arab world conferring upon it a unifying power that is subsequently used by others the way Christianity was used by Christendom’s “Holy Roman Empire.” Islam becomes the unifying force behind an Islamic order that stretches from the Himalayas to the Pyrenees.

All of this is to say that imperial Islam (like the imperial Christianity that began under Constantine in the 4th century) is out-of-keeping with the faith of its founding prophet. Social justice, care for the poor, and recognition of transcendent human community, are not.

In the eyes of contemporary Muslims, all of this makes Muhammad particularly relevant to their situation in a world dominated by corporate globalization. As in the prophet’s day, globalization’s celebration of self-sufficiency contradicts Islam’s basic values of community, compassion and care for society’s most vulnerable.

As the leader and embodiment of the values that run so counter to Islam’s basic thrust, the United States is viewed as “Shaytan” (which is often translated for us simply as “Satan”). For Muslims however, Shaytan is not the prince of demons as he appears, for instance, in Dante’s Inferno. Instead, Shaytan is “the great deceiver,” whose promises mislead, corrupt and immiserate those who believe them.

In fact, while promising peace, prosperity, and happiness, the elevation of commercial values to a position of supremacy in the moral hierarchy could not be (in Muslim eyes) more deceptive and disastrous. Without care for society’s poor and vulnerable, commercial values lead to individualism, competition, war and unhappiness.

No wonder the U.S. is identified with Satan!

(Next: Islam and Violence)

In Praise of Persistent Women like Medea Benjamin, Elizabeth Warren, and Amy Goodman (Sunday Homily)

Widow-and-Unjust-Judge

Readings for 29th Sunday in Ordinary Time: EX 17: 8-13; PS 121: 1-8; 2 TM 3:14-4:2; LK 18: 1-8; http://usccb.org/bible/readings/102013.cfm

Medea Benjamin is a peace activist and founder of Code Pink. In May of this year, she interrupted a speech by President Obama about the closing of Guantanamo Bay. Four times during his speech, she reminded the president that as chief executive he had the power to close the prison as he had promised during his campaign of 2008. The president was forced to acknowledge Benjamin’s point, but held that the issue was more complicated than she made it out to be. Clearly her outspokenness called for great courage and exposed to an international audience President Obama’s failure to keep his word. It pressured the president to change policy.
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Elizabeth Warren is the Democratic Senator from Massachusetts. Elected to the Senate in 2012, she is the first female senator from Massachusetts. Ms. Warren is a tireless consumer advocate and the first female Senator from Massachusetts. During her campaign, she called attention to the hypocrisy of “self-made men” claiming they owed nothing to government or community to explain their success. She said,

“There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own. Nobody. You built a factory out there — good for you. But I want to be clear. You moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for. You hired workers the rest of us paid to educate. You were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for.….Now look. You built a factory and it turned into something terrific or a great idea — God Bless! Keep a Big Hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.”
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Amy Goodman is a television journalist and host of “Democracy Now: the War and Peace Report” – a daily news hour on the Pacifica Radio and Television network. In the face of mainstream media’s refusal to cover significant grassroots events and issues, Ms. Goodman’s program has been called “probably the most significant progressive news institution that has come around in some time” (by professor and media critic Robert McChesney.) In addition to OpEdNews, “Democracy Now” is an invaluable daily source of information for the well-informed. It is an example of what can be accomplished for peace and social justice in the face of overwhelming odds.
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Keep in mind the examples of Medea Benjamin, Elizabeth Warren, and Amy Goodman as we attempt to understand today’s liturgy of the word. Our readings raise the issue of prayer, and what it means (in Jesus’ words) to “pray always without ceasing.”

Actually, the readings compare what might be termed “men’s way of praying” with women’s. At least in today’s readings, men pray that God might intervene to slaughter their enemies. In contrast, the woman in today’s gospel confronts the power structure of her day as her way of praying. That is, she persistently works to bring her world into harmony with God’s justice.

Take that first reading from Exodus. . . . Did it make you raise your eyebrows? It should have. It’s about God facilitating mass slaughter. It tells the story of Moses praying during a battle against the King of Amalek. It’s a classic etiology evidently meant to explain a chair-like rock formation near a site remembered as an early Hebrew battleground.

“What means this formation?” would have been the question inspiring this explanatory folk tale. “Well,” came the answer, “Long ago when our enemy Amelek attacked our people, Moses told Joshua to raise an elite corps of fighters. During the course of the ensuing battle, Moses watched from this very place where we are standing accompanied by his brother Aaron and another friend called Hur.

Moses raised his hands in prayer during the day-long battle. And as long as he did so, Joshua’s troops got the better of Amalek’s. But Moses would get tired from time to time; so he’d lower his hands. When he did so, Amalek’s troops got the better of Joshua’s.

“To solve the problem, Aaron and Hur sat Moses down on this stone you see before us. They held up his arms during the entire battle. That strategy saved the day. Joshua won his battle “mowing down Amelek and his people.”

So here we have a God who responds to ad hoc prayers and reverses history so that one group of his children might “mow down” another group of people he supposedly loves. Hmmm. . . .

In today’s gospel, Jesus has another approach to prayer. For him, prayer is not an ad hoc affair – about changing God’s mind. Rather, praying always represents the adoption of an attitude that consistently seeks justice for the oppressed. Praying always means living from a place that won’t let go of justice concerns like those that drive Medea Benjamin, Elizabeth Warren and Amy Goodman.

To illustrate that point for his own time, Jesus tells a comic parable about a persistent woman. (Remember, he’s speaking to people who have no power in a legal system, which, like ours favors the wealthy and powerful.)

“Imagine a judge,” Jesus said. “He’s like most of the judges we know. He doesn’t give a damn about the God of the poor, and he doesn’t care what people like us think of him.” (Already Jesus’ audience is smiling seeing a funny story coming.)

“But then along comes this widow-woman. Like all of us, she’s poor, and as usual, the judge pays no attention to her.” (Jesus’ audience recognizes the syndrome; they nod to each other.)

“But this woman’s a nagger,” Jesus says. (Now his audience is snickering and chuckling.)

“She just won’t let go. And she’s strong and aggressive besides. She comes back day after day insisting that she get justice against her adversary. And as the days go by, she gets more and more insistent – and threatening. So much so that the judge starts getting worried about his own safety.

(Laughter from the crowd . . .)

“’While it is true,’ he says to himself, ‘that I neither fear God nor respect any human being, because this widow keeps bothering me I shall deliver a just decision for her lest she finally come and strike me.’”

In other words, this macho judge is afraid of this poor widow; he’s afraid she’ll come and beat him up!

Can you imagine Jesus saying that without smiling broadly – and without the crowd roaring in laughter?

Anyway, here’s Jesus point: “If an unjust judge responds to the prayer of the poor like that, how do you suppose the All-Parent will respond when we ask for justice? The All-Parent will respond swiftly, Jesus says, because that’s who God is – the one who (as Martin Luther King put it) has established an arc of history that bends towards justice.

Prayer, then, is about reminding ourselves of that fact, trusting and having faith that in the long run justice and truth will prevail. Taking that position in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, takes great faith that’s harder and harder to find.

So Jesus ends his parable with the rhetorical question, “When the Son of Man returns, do you think he’ll find that kind of faith anywhere?”

What I’m suggesting here is that today we’re more likely to find that kind of faith, that kind of prayer, that kind of persistence in women rather than men. The example of social activist Medea Benjamin encourages us to find our voices in defense of the voiceless in U.S. prison camps throughout the world. Politician, Elizabeth Warren, calls us to pray always by calling into question received truths like those surrounding “self-made men.” Amy Goodman and her “War and Peace Report” inspire us to renounce ideas of God that call us to “mow our enemies down.”

Thank God for persistent women! We men have an awful lot to learn from them.

Islam as Liberation Theology: Muhammad as a Prophet for Our Times (Part One)

Islamic World

I remember as I was finishing my teaching career of 36 years at Berea College in Kentucky that I experienced a spectacular failure regarding Islam.

In the light of the then-recent events of 9/11/01, I had moved that all students be required to study Islam either in a separate required course or as part of an already existing course (on writing or Western Civilization). After a brief discussion, my proposal was put to a vote. It received two (!) “Yeas” and about 148 “Nays” from a faculty of 150. “Next order of business . . . “

Despite going down in flames like that, I still think my proposal was a good one. That’s because ignorance of Islam lies close to the heart of our country’s highly questionable (not to say bogus) “War on Terror.”

Even more importantly, as a liberation theologian, I see “Islamists” as part of world-wide movement of poor people to use their religious traditions as a force for freedom rather than control and slavery. In fact, I consider this movement as the most important intellectual and social development since the writing of the Communist Manifesto in 1848. Grasping that fact and the true nature of Islam should be Job #1 for teachers and peace advocates.

Perhaps, like the Berea faculty, you find that assertion difficult to buy. And why shouldn’t you? Even in its Christian form, “liberation theology” has been misrepresented and distorted beyond recognition. Why shouldn’t we expect even more of the same for its Islamic counterpart?

So let me explain. Begin with the context of my proposal.

Once again, it came in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. On all sides Islam was being vilified as foreign, primitive, terrorist, and anti-female. U.S. military personnel regularly desecrated the Koran.

And their leaders like Lt. Gen. Wm. G. Boykin, were asserting the superiority of “our God” over “their God.” Republicans who otherwise ridiculed feminists as “femi-nazis” suddenly became champions of women’s liberation as they attacked Islam for preventing women from driving cars and wearing mini-skirts.

All of that made me suspicious. I knew a little about Islam from my poor attempts at teaching an introductory course part of whose intent was introducing freshman students to “world religions.” We had read Huston Smith’s The Religions of Man. If nothing else, Smith taught me that Islam, Judaism, and Christianity are sister faiths. There is no distinction between “their God” and “our God.” All three were “religions of the book.” At the very least, all recognized Jesus as a great prophet.

I had also taught Malcolm’s Autobiography. His embrace of Islam had called my attention to the attraction of Islam for poor people as an alternative to enslaving interpretations of Christianity. Malcolm’s passion for the Nation of Islam easily connected with my own for liberation theology – i.e. with the reading of the Judeo-Christian tradition from the perspective of those committed to the welfare and destiny of the world’s poor.

I remembered that somewhere in the literature of liberation theology, I had read that Islam was today’s most prominent example of a ”religion of the poor and oppressed.” As such Islam was influencing far greater numbers of the world’s poor than had Christianity’s liberation theology which was largely defeated by the U.S. military in what Noam Chomsky has called “the first religious war of the 21st century.” That religious conflict had pitted the U.S. government against the Catholic Church in Latin America.

Understanding Islam as today’s foremost expression of the liberating power of faith made the 1979 uprising in Iran a movement inspired by “liberation theology.” It did the same thing for other movements for liberation throughout the Asia and Africa. With all their triumphs and distortions, they too were movements against colonialism and its neo-colonial aftermath. In the name of God, they all stood against the exploitation and oppression of the East by the West.

That’s true, of course, for our contemporary “Arab Spring.” After all, did you think all those students and others protesting in Tahrir Square had suddenly left behind their devotion to Islam? What do you think motivated them? Had they suddenly become secularists? More obviously, what moved the “Islamic Brotherhood” to oppose the U.S. puppet Mubarak? Or why do you think the Egyptians elected the Brotherhood to lead their country?

Obviously, the motivation was largely found in Islam and in the realization that their faith as exemplified in the life and writing of the prophet Muhammad champions the Arab world’s poor in their struggle against the rich who have hijacked both Christianity in the West and Islam in the East.

It’s that liberationist understanding of Islam that the West must distort and vilify just as it did Christian liberation theology when it threatened to radically alter the political landscape of Latin America from the Medellin Conference of 1968 to the assassination of El Salvador’s most prominent liberation theologians in 1989.

It’s time to set the record straight in no uncertain terms. (That after all was the thrust of my proposal that evening on the faculty floor.) Reading Karen Armstrong’s Muhammad: Prophet for Our Time can help. In fact, Armstrong’s book would be required reading in the course I proposed. Without ever mentioning liberation theology, it reveals Muhammad as the champion of the poor and oppressed that Christianity’s liberation theology shows Jesus to have been.

(More about this in next Monday’s post.)

Why Am I Here in India? (Sunday Homily)

Religion in India

Readings for 28th Sunday in Ordinary Time: 2 KGS 5: 14-17; PS 98: 1-4; 2TM 2”8-13; LK 17: 11-19. http://usccb.org/bible/readings/101313.cfm

My wife and I have been in India now for six weeks. Peggy’s working as a Fulbright researcher at the University of Mysore here in the country’s south. I’m here . . . I’m only now realizing why.

To tell the truth, I had come to India more or less reluctantly. I mean since retirement I had traveled a great deal including six months in Costa Rica, five months in South Africa, and now the prospect of 4 ½ months here in India. So perhaps understandably, I was feeling tired of living out of a suitcase.

I wondered then, why Life, why life’s circumstances had brought me here to what many consider the “Soul of the World” – an ancient culture with deep, deep spiritual roots?

I thought about that for a long time. Then I concluded that the opportunity here is absolutely golden for spiritual growth.

That’s why I’m here then, I concluded. Life is telling me I need to grow and break away from patterns of living and thought that have unconsciously become too comfortable and stifling.

And what resources there are in India for assisting in that project! There are spiritual masters here, teachers of meditation and yoga. (For example, Sunday I have an appointment with a Past Life Review teacher.)

In addition, Indian food (not my favorite) challenges me to adjust my palate. Cows walk the streets. Dress is different as well. Music too seems completely foreign (but delightful), as Peggy and I have discovered in attending a kind of “Indian Woodstock” festival of traditional Indian chanting, drumming, flute and violin playing during the two-week festival of the god Ganesh. And the traffic. . . . I’ve never seen anything as wild. No rules at all that I can see. I doubt if I could learn to drive here.

All of this is forcing me to expand my horizons and break away from what spiritual masters here call “samskaras” – habitual patterns of perceiving, thinking and living.

That’s what spiritual masters do for a living – they challenge old ways of thinking. It’s what the prophet Elisha did in this morning’s first reading, and what Jesus does in today’s gospel selection. Both readings reveal God’s love for those our cultural norms classify as strange and even evil.

Our first reading centralizes the prophet, Elisha, who worked in Samaria for 60 years in the 9th century BCE. That, of course, was a full 100 years or more before Samaritans emerged as Israel’s bête noir.

Nonetheless, it is true that Naaman may have been even more detestable to Elisha’s contemporaries than Samaritans eventually became to the Jews. That’s because Naaman was a captain in the army of the King of Aram who at the very time of the officer’s cure was attacking Elisha’s homeland. Elisha’s cure of Naaman would be like extending free healthcare to a known al-Qaeda “terrorist” today.

In other words, Naaman is a foreigner and an enemy of Elisha’s people. On top of that he’s a leper, which supposedly further marks him as an object of God’s disfavor. Despite all these disqualifications, the greatest prophet in Israel cures him.

The narrative’s point: there is indeed only one God, and that God loves everyone, even our designated enemies. That was a stretch for the people of Elisha’s time. It’s a stretch for us.

Still, the point is picked up in today’s responsorial psalm. Remember the refrain we sang together this morning: “The Lord has revealed to all the nations his saving power.” According to the psalmist, then, God is not tied to one land. God’s saving power is evident in every place on earth. As the psalmist put it, “All the ends of the earth have seen God’s salvation.”

God belongs to everyone. Everyone belongs to God.

By Jesus’ time, nearly 800 years after Naaman’s cure, Israel still wasn’t buying that message. In fact, they had narrowed God’s presence to particular locations within the land of Israel. Orthodox Jews believed God was present on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, and could only be really worshipped in the Temple there. Samaritans, on the other hand, believed that the place to worship Yahweh was on Mt. Gerizim, where they said Abraham had nearly sacrificed his son, Isaac.

In other words, Samaritans embodied a sectarian battle among the descendants of Abraham over where to worship God – was it on the Temple Mount or on Mount Gerizim?

Jesus completely ignores the debate. He cures a Samaritan along with nine other lepers – presumably all Jews.

The story is simple: the lepers approach Jesus. He tells them to “show yourselves to the priests.” It’s not clear what Jesus had in mind. Some say there was a law requiring cured lepers to be certified by the priests. Others say Jesus’ intention was to confront the priests, to assert his identity (as his mentor, John the Baptist had done) as the people’s high priest.

In any case, the lepers leave in search of the priests, and on the way are cured. As we well know, only the Samaritan leper returns to thank Jesus. Why? Was it that the priests had persuaded the others not to return, since they were convinced that Jesus was possessed?

On the other hand, the priests would probably have refused to see the Samaritan, because of their deep prejudice.

So the Samaritan turns out to be the hero of the story, not the priests or those who listen to them. Just like Naaman, the one in the story most open to God was the character most alienated from reigning cultural norms.

And that brings me back to my opening point – to my hopes about India. Recently I was reading an article by an Indian scholar of religion who identified Jesus as an Indian yogi. The author suggested that the reason the priests and the people of Jesus’ time and culture could not understand him was that his approach to life and God was completely alien to them.

It was a mystical philosophy more akin to the Far East – to India – than to Middle Eastern Palestine. Put briefly Jesus’ mystical philosophy can be summarized in the words “Aham Sarvum! Sarvum Aham!” –“I AM ALL. ALL is ME.” In fact, Jesus’ basic approach can be summarized as follows:

1. There is a spark of the divine within every human being.
2. That spark can be realized, i.e. energize every aspect of our lives in the here and now.
3. It is the purpose of life to live from that place of divine presence.
4. Once we do so, we will recognize God’s presence in every human being and in all of creation.

Or as John the Evangelist has Jesus say:

1. “I am in the father, and the father in me.” [John 14.10]
2. “I am in my father, and ye in me, and I in you.” [John 14.20]
3. “I and my Father are One.” [John 10.30]

In other words, the guru (Jesus), the disciple, and God are all One. Separation of God and Her creation is nothing but illusion (MAYA). ALL IS ONE.

All of this confirms for me what I’ve learned from Eknath Easwaran, my Indian teacher of meditation over the last 15 years: at their summit all the world’s Great Religions come together in the mystical vision just articulated.

If all of this is true, what does all of this mean for us today? I think this at least:

• There are many ways to understand God.
• Sectarianism is foreign to the Divine Reality.
• God loves our mortal enemies and performs miracles on their behalf just as God did in the example of Naaman.
• More specifically, God loves al-Qaeda fighters and the ones we call “terrorists” just as much as (S)he does us. Our enemies represent God’s presence and so do we. We should treat them as though this were true.
• God loves those we classify as unclean, unworthy, ungodly, and untouchable.
• More specifically, God loves people with AIDS; God loves the foreigner, the outcast. They represent the presence of God and so do we. And because of our tendency to reject them, they are somehow closer to God than we are.
• It’s good to step outside the reach of our culture’s categories, at least once in a while.