Interfaith News Roundup
September 15, 2018
News You May Not Have Seen
The most unexpected news headline of the year came from the August 27 Guardian: “Religion: Why faith is becoming more and more popular.” In whose world? In the whole world, it turns out, which tells a very different story that what is happening in Europe and North America. Globally, 84 percent of us all identify with a religious group, and the numbers are growing. Muslims are growing fastest of all, and by mid-century are projected to surpass Christianity, the largest tradition currently. Part of the reason is that between 2010 and 2015, Christian deaths outnumbered Christian births by six million. It’s worth nothing that the unaffiliated with any tradition, a constituency much discussed in the West, is also a global ‘community,’ now the third largest, following Christians and Muslims.
Another startling story is that Canada is seeing a revival in religious life due to immigrants, especially from countries like China, the Philippines, and Korea. In a recent survey 36 percent of those born in Canada think religious organizations are good for society, whereas 57 percent of those not born in Canada think they are.
Meanwhile, Pew Research reports that 64 percent of African American millennials self-identify as “highly religious” as opposed to 39 percent of non-black millennials. That said, black millennials are less religious than their parents and grandparents.
For years progressive congregations have emphasized inclusive language when talking about God, though masculine references to God abound and prevail in today’s culture which remains reluctant to perceive God in feminine terms. David Wheeler-Reed has written a fascinating essay about ancient Jewish and early Christian God-talk. You’ll probably be surprised at his hiding-in-plain-sight discoveries.
Seven thousand Bnei Menashe Jews who live in Manipur, in northeast India, believe they are descended from one of the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel. Though the heritage they claim is based on oral traditions, not historical documentation, they are deeply involved in Judaism’s faith and practice. Most have a dream of committing aliyah, that is, to move to Israel. A number of religious and political Jewish leaders agree with them, though the immigration process is bewildering at best.
Transhumanists believe that with science and technology human life can be extended, perhaps by hundreds of years. The Christian Transhumanist Association held a conference last month, the first of its kind in North America, to talk about the relationship between transhumanism and Christianity, and whether they are compatible or not. There were many different opinions!
Moving from the strange to the frightening: United States Attorney General Jeff Sessions has created a new federal “religious liberty task force,” which might sound good, on the face of it. Turns out, per the details, the meaning of religious liberty has been changed. The constitutionally guaranteed right to freely worship and not face a government religion is where religious liberty began in the United States. But in the Trump administration “the phrase connotes freedoms and privileges granted mostly to Christians — specifically, the white conservative Christians who form a vital part of the Republican base,” argues Jonathan Merritt in the Washington Post.
If you feel overwhelmed by the anti-interfaith implications of the last item, take a breath before confronting Religion News Service’s detailing of Donald Trump’s close relationship with the religious right. The article suggests that it will not help him much during the November elections in the US.
After years of having to hearing conservative Christianity treated like the only religion around, an American religious left is emerging and being noticed in major publications. It is activist and rooted in the Social Gospel that influenced American religion so much in the early 20th century and then found new life in the ministry of Martin Luther King Jr.
The Many Ways We Fight
It is stunning to see the variety of pro-and-con conflicts religion can breed. An extremely conservative Muslim community in the Indonesian province of Aceh has made it illegal for unmarried men and women to eat and drink in a coffee shop or restaurant without the woman’s father, brother, or other family member being there too. And unaccompanied women are forbidden to be in cafes after nine pm.
On the other side of the globe, in Belgium, authorities are proposing an end to religious programming on public television after a Catholic layperson read a passage from the New Testament (Ephesians 5:22-33), including “Women, be submissive to your husband as the husband to the Lord. For the man is the head of the woman as Christ is the head of the church.”
Recent elections in Pakistan have honed the passion of Sunni Muslim extremists and their struggle to destroy Ahmadi Muslims, a minority sect. In Faisalabad a “mob” of Sunni Muslims burned down the worship center of the local Ahmadi sect. Ahmadi theology conforms with most Muslim theology except regarding the Ahmadi claim of a final prophet following Mohammed, which is heretical for the orthodox. Though a tiny minority, the Ahmadi suffer enormously for their alternative theology. Christians have also been subject to bigotry and violence in Pakistan. This kind of interfaith conflict is particularly alarming in a country with nuclear weapons.
Qamar-ul Huda’s “Religious leaders can’t fight terrorism with ideas alone” opens a door on peacemaking that is invisible to most of us. The Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) movement is a global effort to reduce the terror of public violence. Huda shows how tough it is to be a peacemaker with an authoritarian government, in highly conflicted regions, or in the midst of war. And he has good ideas about how to improve this remarkable work.
The great good news that Ethiopia and Eritrea have signaled peace, following years of war and tension, came through this summer. That has pulled back the curtain on the degree to which Eritrea has persecuted religious communities and their followers. If you are not Orthodox Christian, Roman Catholic, Evangelical Lutheran, or Sunni Muslim, you were subject to be jailed. The new peace treaty raised the hopes of the oppressed, and in July 35 Christians were released from shipping-container prisons. The country has ten prisons where it is estimated that 1200-3000 Christians have been held from several months to 20 years.
Roman Catholic Troubles Abound
The hope that clergy-abuse allegations have finally slowed down was dashed by abuse accusations against Cardinal Theodore McCarrick. He has been a particularly distinguished American Catholic leader. One of Pope Francis’ closest colleagues, he was one of the first to champion to promote sexual abuse policies. The Vatican suspended McCarrick from all priestly duties. Cardinal Sean O’Malley, Pope Francis’ point man on clergy sexual abuse, has called for stricter clergy-abuse guidelines, in particular, towards bishops.
More recently, though, have come serious accusations that Francis himself knew of McCarrick’s abusiveness some years ago, enormously complicating his role in healing the Church’s broken sexual past. Another close papal \colleague, Australian Cardinal Pell, has been in court this summer accused of covering up sexual abuse.
At the same time, litigation and court orders meant that a 900-page report was published last month on sexual abuse by priests and those who hid the record in six of Pennsylvania’s dioceses. In one diocese, the bishop got ahead of the report and published the names of 71 clergy, seminarians, and church personnel since the 1940s who’ve been accused of sexually abusing children. He also is removing their names, including bishops who buried stories of abuse, from the walls of all diocesan buildings.
The explosive Pennsylvania report has inspired attorneys general in six more US states to investigate abuse cover-ups in Catholic dioceses – Illinois, Missouri, Nebraska , New Jersey, New Mexico, and New York.
Sexual abuse was not the only issue preoccupying the Vatican this summer. Pope Emeritus Benedict, with a brief essay, has generated a theological ruckus across Europe undermining the close relationship Christians and Jews have developed in recent decades. Plenty of details fit into this complex story. But at the root of it is Benedict’s insistence that “the Christian lens for reading the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) is the only valid one.”
Pope Francis has been extolled in these pages as the world’s premier interfaith activist, a judgment he still deserves. The scourge of sexual abuse which seems somehow beyond his capacity to solve has slowed him down, but surely not silenced him. Last month he declared that capital punishment is always wrong, a shift from earlier Catechism language which allowed for capital punishment, though only if it was the “only practical way” to save lives. This shift could complicate the lives of Catholic judges and politicians, as well as the 53 percent of American Catholics who favor capital punishment as opposed to the 42 percent who oppose it.
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Audrey Kitagawa: New Board Chair-Elect at the Parliament
Last month, Audrey E. Kitagawa was unanimously elected to be chairperson of the Parliament of the World’s Religions. She will be introduced as the new chair at the Toronto Parliament in November and installed on January 1, 2019.
It is difficult trying to convey what Audrey does in a few sentences. She is an Asian American woman from Honolulu who leads the Light of Awareness International Spiritual Family. The community was inspired by Sri Ramakrishna, the 19th century saint who was the guru of Swami Vivekananda, who electrified the initial 1893 Parliament with his words. Sri Ramakrishna is known throughout India for his spiritually grounded, interfaith-affirming, dedication to human service, social justice, and the cultivation of the heart of compassion.
Audrey embraces an international ministry expressing the power of love, was a successful attorney for 20 years, an ardent interfaith feminist and anti-war social justice advocate, a leader in the UN’s NGO communities, an author who writes about social justice and spiritual practice, and the co-facilitator of the United Religions Initiative Cooperation Circle at the United Nations.
She became a devotee of Divine Mother Flora Nomi (1914-1992) of the Spiritual Family. At the end of her life, Divine Mother passed the mantle on to Audrey, asking her to carry Sri Ramakrishna’s Light to the world for her.
Audrey Kitagawa, except for being filled with joy, defies most traditional stereotypes of spiritual leaders by being an activist involved in global initiatives. She understands the challenge of leading a growing international interfaith movement that seeks to create an understanding of the importance of cooperation and collaboration among communities of faith in addressing global challenges.