Interfaith News Roundup
May 15, 2018
The Souls of Poor Folk was published last month by the Institute for Policy Studies, the Poor Peoples’ Campaign, Kairos, and Repairers of the Breach. The book’s lengthy subtitle provides the focus: Auditing America 50 Years After the Poor People’s Campaign Challenged Racism, Poverty, the War Economy/Militarism, and Our National Morality. A team of 14 co-authors has done its homework, first in upending myths about poverty (e.g., poverty is the fault of the poor; and, in spite of America’s abundance, there isn’t enough for everyone to survive and thrive). But the bulk of this 120-page text dives deep into the issues of systemic racism, poverty and inequality, the war economy and militarism, and ecological devastation. If you are really bothered by poverty, download the book – it’s free. These folks are also raising a campaign to do something about what they’ve documented.
Religious freedom took a heavy hit in 2017, reports the U.S. Commission on Religious Freedom. Twenty-eight countries were called out for severe abuses, with ten identified as the most oppressive: Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.
In India a groundswell of anger is growing towards politicians about their casual response to an epidemic of rape. The ruling party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), is coming in for special criticism; as a Hindu nationalist organization, it is blamed for looking aside, particularly when the victims of crime are Muslim, as has been the case in a number of rapes.
The enduring violence being generated in Mexico by drug cartels is confronting the Catholic church again, with three priests killed in a week’s time last month. Two others were shot to death in February. At least one cleric, Bishop Salvador Rangel, whose diocese covers the violent southern cities of Chilpancingo and Chilapa, is striving to open a dialogue with the drug gangs. Rangel says, “If they are pointing a gun at someone, and I manage to turn that gun to another direction, I am saving a life, or more than one. I think it is worth it, if only to save the life of one person.”
Donald Trump and the Religious Right
More in our coverage of the romance between Donald Trump and the majority of evangelical Christians comes from an in-depth analysis in Politico. Trump started showing up on Christian television more than six years ago. Christian Broadcasting Network – Pat Robertson’s domain – is Trump’s prime media access point these days, getting more attention from the president than ABC, CBS, or NBC. At the largest Christian television network, Trinity Broadcasting System, the favorite show is moderated by Southern Baptist pastor and former presidential candidate, Mike Huckabee. His daughter, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, is Donald Trump’s press secretary, and the president was the program’s first guest. At Vox, Nancy Wadsworth adds an additional layer to all of this by analyzing the racism that Trump shares with his evangelical base.
It is no secret that right-wing Christians yearn for the United States of America to become an unabashedly Christian nation, as they understand Christianity. President Trump’s latest gift to this constituency comes in the announcement of a new Federal “initiative that aims to give faith groups a stronger voice within the federal government and serve as a watchdog for government overreach on religious liberty issues.”
The president introduced the White House Faith and Opportunity Initiative at a National Day of Prayer breakfast early this month. It immediately raised concerns, particularly in the LGBTQ community. It will, Trump said, “help ensure that faith-based organizations have equal access to government funding and equal right to exercise their deeply held beliefs.” These beliefs, it’s been observed, can be discriminatory. The ACLU’s Daniel Mach, notes, “Freedom of religion is one of our most fundamental and cherished rights. But that freedom does not give any of us the right to harm other people, to impose our beliefs on others, or to discriminate.”
In spite of all this, it is important to remember that Evangelical Christianity is not monolithic, and certainly not of one mind. The New Yorker reports, for instance, that 50 evangelical leaders – academic, journalistic, and clergy heavy-weights – gathered recently for a two-day summit on discouraging the close relationships being developed between Donald Trump and the majority of the Evangelical Christianity in the U.S.
When Americans say they believe in God, what do they mean? That was Pew Forum’s recent question. Their survey found that roughly nine-in-ten Americans say they believe in God or a higher power, although only a slim majority (56%) believe in God “as described in the Bible.” An additional 33% believe in another higher power or spiritual force, while 10% say they believe there is no higher power or spiritual force in the universe, according to a Pew survey taking a new approach to measuring Americans’ beliefs about God.
The conservative forces aligned against Pope Francis have been gaining in power, within and outside the Vatican. One book – The Dictator Pope by H.J.A. Sire – clearly indicates their displeasure. Nevertheless, Vatican scholars suggest, Francis is winning the battle to turn the Church towards fiscal reform, justice, refugees and immigrants, and care for the planet. The newest debate: the possibility of offering “access to the Eucharist” to non-Catholic Christian spouses of Catholics … permission to take Communion, in Protestant language. A high-level discussion is currently addressing the matter at the Vatican. This may not seem a big deal to non-Christians, but it evokes fury from some conservative Catholics.
Meanwhile, in a body-blow to the pope’s attempt to reform the Vatican’s finances, Cardinal George Pell, who was leading that effort, is being accused on multiple counts of historical sexual abuse in Australia.
Once again France becomes the site of difficult interfaith relations. Karina Piser’s piece in the Atlantic is a fascinating reminder of how complicated and difficult Abrahamic divisiveness can be. Last month, following two grisly murders of elderly Jewish women by young Muslim extremists, a manifesto was published by 300 prominent intellectuals and politicians proposing that “the verses of the Quran calling for murder and punishment of Jews, Christians, and nonbelievers be struck to obsolescence by religious authorities,” so that “no believer can refer to a sacred text to commit a crime.” Nationally and internationally, the Muslim world was stunned, many calling the proposal “blasphemous.” Imams suggested that the verses in question needed to be understood in historical context, not literally as instructions for being in the world today. Their clear consensus, though, is that changing the holy book is not an option. This will not be an easy one to settle!
Fascinating new research from the University of Utah found a religious backlash in states where the Christian right pushes its agenda, especially politically. Widely publicized public evangelical efforts generated an increase of two to eight percent of those identifying themselves as “none” regarding religious affiliation. So the ‘none’ rates are growing faster in Republican than Democratic states.
A new study by the Pubic Religion Research Institute suggests that most religious groups in the United States now favor same-sex marriage, with 61 percent of Americans favoring it and 30 percent opposing, a significant shift over the past five years. While a majority of evangelical Christians and Mormons continue to oppose LGBTQ marriage, even there the numbers are trending towards support.
A University of Texas study found that while faith and religious practice typically serve as a positive influence for those tempted by suicide, devoutness actually increases the thoughts of suicide among gays and lesbians, though not bisexuals. It suggests that being caught in the tug-of-war between conservative theological strictures and one’s sexuality can be a “very dangerous place to be.”
Last month Saudi Arabia’s King Salman bin Abdulaziz hosted the president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue at the Vatican, Cardinal Jean-Louis Pierre Tauran. They met at the palace in al-Yamamah, an ancient historical region lying to the east of the plateau of Najd in modern-day Saudi Arabia. This high level Catholic-Muslim meeting focused on “the importance of the role of followers of religions and cultures in renouncing violence, extremism, terrorism and achieving security and stability in the world.” The king’s son, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, has also been making international news with his liberalizing reforms; clearly the prince and the king are in agreement about becoming interfaith-friendly.
The KAICIID Dialogue Center in Vienna last month sponsored a ten-day interfaith dialogue workshop for 21 teachers and scholars from ten different African countries. The purpose was to prepare them to teach their students “how to become active agents and facilitators of interreligious and intercultural dialogue.” The subject matter: dialogue, mediation, and promoting social cohesion. Around the world, KAICIID has sponsored 125 leaders through the program, with 44 currently enrolled.
Earlier this year 26 Shinto priests from Japan visited Jerusalem to meet with Jewish scholars to explore common ground. Since Shintoism professes multiple deities and Judaism is monotheistic, some wondered if there could be any common ground between these two ancient traditions. But participants were pleased with the five-day gathering, where an emphasis on being non-judgmental about other religions was the common thread.
“Christians, Jews and Muslims share a campus in a unique interfaith collaboration” is the title of Rick Davis’ in-depth feature of Tri Faith Initiative (TFI), a multi-million dollar campus and program in Omaha, Nebraska. Bud Heckman, regular TIO contributor and director, was installed as TFI’s founding executive director last month. Their programmatic ambitions suggest that Omaha will become a center of national and global interfaith activity.
Muslim girls in Kansas are finding Girl Scouts to be a welcoming, valuable social platform that helps mitigate the Islamophobic minefields they are subjected to in their daily lives.
The Legacy Museum and National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama opened last month. It is a memorial to those who suffered “racial terror lynchings” in America. “The 11,000-square-foot Legacy Museum is built on the site of a former warehouse where enslaved black people were imprisoned and is located midway between a historic slave market and the main river dock and train station where tens of thousands of enslaved people were trafficked during the height of the domestic slave trade.” It features 800 six-foot columns suspended from above, representing those who died. Memory is one of the few tools at our disposal to keep us from repeating the horrors of the past. Those who sponsored and created this Memorial deserve the deep appreciation of the American people.
Few have understood the tragedy of racism in America better than theologian James H. Cone, “the founder of black liberation theology,” who died April 29, at the age of 79. A highly respected professor at Union Theological Seminary in New York City since 1969, he wrote numerous books, including Black Theology & Black Power (1997). Cornel West wrote of him, “James Cone was the theological giant and genius in our midst! He was the greatest liberation theologian to emerge in the American empire – and he never ever sold out.”
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Working Together in the Interfaith Movement
The most important word in the interfaith lexicon is collaboration, suggesting that we can’t get where we’re going if we try to go it alone. United Religions Initiative and Religious Freedom and Business Foundation released the following press release last month, about a partnership to work together.
United Religions Initiative (URI) and Religious Freedom and Business Foundation (RFBF) have agreed in a memorandum of understanding to work together to strengthen each organization’s efforts to create cultures of peace through interfaith cooperation and understanding.
With U.S. offices in San Francisco, California, URI is the largest grassroots interfaith peacebuilding network in the world, cultivating peace and justice by engaging people to bridge religious and cultural differences and work together for the good of their communities and the world. URI implements its mission through local and global initiatives that build the capacity of its member groups (called Cooperation Circles) in 104 countries to engage in community action such as conflict resolution and reconciliation, environmental sustainability, education, women’s empowerment, youth leadership programs, and advocacy for human rights.
Headquartered in Annapolis, Maryland, RFBF educates the global business community about how religious freedom is good for business and engages the business community in joining forces with government and non-government organizations in promoting respect for freedom of religion or belief. RFBF envisions a global future of innovative and sustainable economies, where freedom of religion or belief and diversity are respected. It accomplishes its work through its Empowerment Plus initiative, research, global awards, world forums, and education on how freedom of religion or belief is in the strategic interests of businesses and societies.
URI and RFBF will initiate their combined efforts by rolling out Empowerment Plus in conjunction with Launching Leaders Worldwide in the URI Africa Region under the leadership of URI’s Mussie Hailu. Empowerment Plus is an interfaith action program teaching young adults how to apply spiritual principles in their personal and professional lives, helping them develop a faith-centered framework with a focus on giving back.
The interfaith Launching Leaders course is the cornerstone of Empowerment Plus. The course is packed with state-of-the-art videos and interactive exercises that help young adults answer important life questions and make plans for their lives. As an integral part of Empowerment Plus, young adults from different faith groups partner together to carry out practical interfaith action projects ranging from jobs programs to service projects.
Header Photo: Wikipedia