Interfaith News Roundup - March 2018

Interfaith News Roundup 

March 15, 2018

Community Run Amuck

In a time when the growing global refugee population needs everyone’s attention, one man, Donald Trump, has made the life and prospects of refugees much worse. Refugee resettlement operations in the U.S., most of them faith- based nonprofits, have laid off hundreds of staff members due to the Trump administration’s policies calling for significant cutbacks in refugees entering the country. These organizations “typically provide new arrivals with housing and food, as well as long-term assistance for achieving self-sufficiency such as help in finding jobs, learning English, and often becoming permanent U.S. residents or citizens.”

Cultural values and habits can foment serious, violent conflicts that seem astonishing to outsiders. Take this case in Indonesia: the Chinese Year of the Dog is currently being celebrated by the 22 percent of Indonesians who are ethnically Chinese. But Muslims, representing 60 percent of the population, have a long tradition of considering dogs unclean, totally unfit as pets or creatures to venerate. Criticism of the Chinese tradition is being taken as a sign that Indonesia is reverting more and more to conservative Islamic influences, corroding the nation’s long-standing secular values.

Photo:    Wikipedia

Photo: Wikipedia

On a gentler note, the British are learning to make lemonade with the lemons they’re holding. There are 350 ‘abandoned’ churches in England, lacking congregations and put into the care of the Churches’ Conservation Trust. For the past three years the Trust has started promoting “champing,” or camping out in a church. National Public Radio contributor Frank Langfitt took his family for a night to St. Katherine’s, an 18th century sanctuary outside of Oxford, at a cost of $200. It turned out to be an educational, well-spent excursion. Last year more than 1,600 champers took advantage of the opportunity.

Evangelical Complexities

Billy Graham died last month at the age of 99 and a raft of articles has explored his legacy. He was responsible for bringing Evangelical Christianity out of the cultural closet into respectability. He championed a kind of faith that was not focused on theological details or public policy, but was full of mercy, to the dismay of more conservative evangelicals. In counseling a dozen U.S. presidents, Graham established a reputation for being completely nonpartisan politically and resolutely interracial, a radical posture back then. In his day, he was a welcoming promoter of new ecumenical and interfaith relationships. One article shows how he was also a pioneer in utilizing cutting edge communications technology including radio, television, film, satellite transmission, and the web, which he began using 25 years ago.

Billy Graham – Photo:    Wikimedia Commons

Billy Graham – Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The fascinating back-story, though, is how the evangelical community, while revering him, have turned their backs on his point of view and the kind of ministry he embodied, though not his technical acumen. One of several Washington Post stories clarifies how the current evangelical community has utterly abandoned Billy Graham’s approach and vision, ironically led by his own son Franklin, an Islamophobe. Mark Silk’s “How Billy Graham changed religion in America” is particularly perceptive regarding Graham’s contribution; and how far off the mark current evangelical leaders have fallen from that standard.

Rachael Denhollander, a gymnast who went public with accusations of Dr. Larry Nassar, now convicted of hundreds of sexual crimes, reports that her evangelical church totally let her down when she turned to them about the abuse. John Lockhurst’s article about this failure is a gloss of the dangers evangelical congregations face in dealing with sexual abuse. (To be sure, there is a need to address sexual abuse challenges in all religious traditions and communities; although it has to be said that the United Church of Christ, like a number of more progressive ‘mainline’ traditions, began responding 30 years ago to this travesty, providing clear guidelines, clerical continuing education, victim care, and more.)

Christians and non-Christians in America have been amazed by the high percentage of evangelicals who support Donald Trump and his presidency, despite his egregious moral behavior. Tara Isabella Burton’s essay on “vessel theology” sheds light on why 82 percent of evangelical Christians voted for Donald Trump and most still support him. She notes that numerous evangelical leaders have turned to an ancient Persian emperor, Cyrus the Great (circa 600-530 BCE), to explain their attitude towards today’s ethically challenged American president. Cyrus was a ‘pagan’ emperor, a non-believer, goes the argument. But guided by God he freed the Jewish people from slavery and sent them back to their homeland. He was, in other words, an outsider “vessel” of God who liberated the Israelites. Similarly, while Donald Trump doesn’t qualify as a religious leader, he should be seen as an outsider “vessel” guided by God to return the country to a Christian America.

Christian evangelicalism, of course, is hardly monolithic and a number of serious theologians are wrestling with the movement’s identity and integrity. One book taking on the issue squarely is Still Evangelical?: Insiders Reconsider Political, Social, and Theological Meaning, edited by Mark Labberton, president of Fuller Theological Seminary, a highly respected evangelical seminary.

Pagan moon triquetra – Photo:    Pixabay

Pagan moon triquetra – Photo: Pixabay

Erica Baron, a Pagan, makes a powerful, persuasive case that interfaith gatherings too often mistakenly assume that monotheism is shared by us all. One can add that too often folks think interfaith means Abrahamic, forgetting the rest of the world’s religious and spiritual communities. Baron shows how opening the door to non-monotheists enriches us all.

Buddhist Complexities

The Myanmar genocide of the Rohingya Muslim people continues, dramatizing how evil sometimes evolves as it endures. Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times fills in the heartbreaking details.

An extended feature elsewhere in the Times dives deeply into the subject of violence and Buddhism. The ongoing Rohingya events have shocked Westerners who have assumed that the peaceful philosophy of the Buddha somehow saves the tradition from the seduction of violence. The article suggests “that religious traditions are human affairs, and that no matter how noble they may be in their aspirations, they display a full range of both human virtues and human failings.” Ironically, Christian colonialists for the past two centuries contributed to the kind of violence witnessed in recent years such as the Buddhist-Hindu civil war in Sri Lanka and the more recent Myanmar oppression of the Rohingya Muslims. 

Children and Religious Violence

Thousands of surviving children of ISIS fighters as well as their mothers are facing the toughest of readjustments to the world now that ISIS has been defeated. Five thousand ISIS family members are estimated to be in refugee camps and orphanages. “They saw terrible things,” and certain governments, including Russia’s, are working compassionately to keep those experiences from being the enduring dominant factor in their lives.

A new Scottish law to prohibit parents from ‘smacking’ or spanking their children has been breeding religious disagreement. The Catholic Church is opposed, saying that parents have the right to bring up their children as they wish. But the Church of Scotland is on board, supporters pointing out that majority-Catholic countries like Spain, Portugal, and Ireland are doing fine with similar bans against corporal punishment.

Middle East Peacemaking

Jared Kushner, working on behalf of the United States administration, does not seem to be getting anywhere with Middle East peacemaking. Peacemaking efforts in the region, however, are anything but dormant. The recurring theme is that constructive interfaith dialogue is the requisite next step. Last month the 13th Doha conference on interfaith dialogue addressed “Religion and Human Rights,” stressing that “human rights have become a global issue of concern to the international community, necessitating united efforts to protect and fulfill them without discrimination of colour, religion or race.” 

Presenters from KAICIID’s Vienna conference – Photo:    KAICIID

Presenters from KAICIID’s Vienna conference – Photo: KAICIID

Also last month 250 religious leaders and decision-makers gathered in Vienna at a conference on interreligious dialogue sponsored by KAICIID. KAICIID is funded by the Saudi Arabian government and is one of the largest interfaith enterprises in the world. Presenters and participants “stressed the importance of upholding the value of dialogue, promoting coexistence, and establishing the foundations of citizenship to spare Arab societies the scourge of war and violence, especially in the name of religion, as well as the dangers of fanaticism and extremism.” At the conference, Samson Aokunie, president of the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN), blamed the lack of interreligious education for the religious violence running rampant in his country.

Another sign of interfaith peacemaking in the Middle East came in the announcement that United Religions Initiative now has a Cooperation Circle in Saudi Arabia. Nearly a thousand URI circles have been established in more than 100 countries. Saudis for Peace CC is a youth volunteer group that “aims to build bridges of communication, respect, and peace with different religions and cultures, and fights extremism of all kinds.”


Header Photo: Surian Soosay, C.c. 2.0