Interfaith News Roundup - January 2019

Interfaith News Roundup

January 15, 2019

Women and Religion

Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints were shocked when they came to worship for the first time in 2019 and confronted a new liturgy honoring and including women as never before. They found more inclusive language, more gender equity, more lines for Mother Eve. It was a delight to Mormon feminists who have been critical of the liturgy for years. One said, “If you ask any faithful feminist what she wanted to change, these hit the entire checklist. Every single complaint was addressed and fixed in a meaningful way. This was not a baby step; it was like a leap forward.”

The whole world has had to face gender inequity in a day when documents like the Global Ethic and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights have begun to empower women. But it is often a long, protracted, even bitter struggle to champion the rights of women in religious communities. The Mormons made these changes overnight by dint of their presidents’ decision to do so. First President Russell M. Nelson made clear that the changes were linguistic, not theological. You still won’t find women in the Latter-Day Saint’s governing hierarchy, of course, or being called bishops.

In Thailand, a 1928 decision by the country’s Buddhist authorities, backed by the government, says women cannot be ordained as monks or novices, though their ordinations will be recognized in Thailand when performed outside of Thailand. In countries like India and Sri Lanka female Buddhist ordination is not a problem. (Thai Buddhism does allow for a white-robed women’s ordination, giving ordinands the right and responsibility to serve saffron-robed male monks.) A growing group of Thai women ordained overseas in saffron robes are creating a new subset of Thai Buddhist practice. They number but 270 so far, as opposed to 250,000 male monks, but they are passionate about their roles and ministry.   

Mipham Rinpoche, the leader of Shambhala International, one of the largest Buddhist organizations in the West, has been accused of sexual assault allegations, including rape, by a survivors’ group. He has stepped down, as have all of Shambhala’s directors, as the investigation goes forward.

Photo:    Wikipedia

Photo: Wikipedia

In India, a tragic phenomenon that has festered silently for years broke into the open when a number of nuns publically told stories about being raped repeatedly by priests, for years on end, in spite of complaints to authorities. Congregations have become split between defenders and accusers of the priests. Clearly, sexual abuse is not simply an American tragedy, as some have alleged in the past.

Meanwhile in India’s state of Kerala, the Sabarimala Temple, which draws millions of worshipers each year, has traditionally forbidden women of menstruating age from entering. The Indian Supreme Court ordered the lifting of the ban, an order Kerala’s local progressive government has supported. Chaos descended. Police used teargas and water cannons to disperse the thousands who gathered in front of the temple to enforce the age-old ban. Three women have succeeded in getting in and now are in hiding. One powerful politician declared lifting the ban was “a conspiracy by the atheist rulers to destroy the Hindu temples.” This is one of several situations which have knotted religion and politics in this largest of democracies.

News from Various Traditions

The Orthodox tradition continues to suffer institutional disruption. Last November TIO reported that Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople Bartholomew, the “first among equals” in Eastern Orthodox Christian governance, had made the decision to recognize the Ukrainian Orthodox Church as an independent Orthodox body, not a part of Moscow’s Russian Orthodox Church. The Russian Church immediately cut off relations with Bartholomew, who resides in Istanbul. This institutional quarrel has thrust Orthodoxy into turmoil, splintering the different bodies which make up the global Orthodox community.

Photo:    Wikimedia

Photo: Wikimedia

Southern Baptist Seminary, flagship for the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant denomination in the US, has published a report detailing the racism of its founders. Since 1995 the SBC has been working to resist and repent of their record of championing white supremacy. A classically conservative denomination, they have to be admired for taking their shortcomings seriously and trying to do something about it. The Trump administration has become a sticky wicket, however, with African American evangelicals stunned and unhappy with the majority of evangelicals who steadfastly support Trump. John Richards, Jr., a South Baptist leader, confesses, “I fear evangelicals have risked years of processing past racial trauma for a future devoid of Black voices among them.”

In a December 21 address to the Roman Curia, which governs the Roman Catholic church, Pope Francis leveled a strong challenge to all priests and bishops regarding sexual abuse. “The church will spare no effort to do all that is necessary to bring to justice whosoever has committed such crimes.” He promised that “the church will never seek to hush up or not take seriously any case.” He charged priests to expose rather than conceal crime. Francis’ statement comes in preparation of a three-day conference of key bishops at the Vatican, February 21-24, to systematically deal with issues of abuse and concealment.

Jehovah’s Witnesses is a fairly young (beginning around 1870) idiosyncratic Christian denomination that is uninterested in relating to folks from other traditions except to proselytize. That means most of us know very little about them. Whatever disagreements one might have with them, they deserve our compassion. In nine months’ time, five of their large “witness halls” have burned to the ground in Thurston County in the state of Washington. Suffering that kind of violence is heartbreaking. Arson is being assumed, but no one has yet been charged.  

Outside the Box

In your personal “theology” or belief system, how far do you wander from your tradition’s beliefs? Try out these questions:

Do you believe astrology governs your love life?

Do you think some people have extraordinary powers of perception that allow them to predict the future?

Do you hold that some items – such as crystals – possess special spiritual energy?

Do you believe in the concept of past lives?”

Tara Isabella Burton’s story, based on recent Pew Research, reports that 62% of Americans believe at least one of these four “New Age” assumptions. Breaking out the number among Christians, 47% of those from Evangelical traditions, 67% from Mainline traditions, 72% from historically Black traditions, and 70% among Catholics, affirm at least one of the four questions.

Here’s proof positive that it is folly to think you understand people based simply on the religious ‘category’ into which they fall. It also suggests that when you get to an individual’s personal, emotional level of belief, most of us are able to cross or shift or blend philosophic, theological truth-claims, embracing a more universal set of assumptions than the dogma of our home turf typically allows. One group came in last, with only 22% affirming at least one of the four questions: atheists.

A new movement is emerging in American religion. Calling themselves “exvangelicals” or “exvies,” they are mostly younger people rebelling against the authoritarianism of the evangelical churches in which they were raised. In leaving their home traditions, they range from abandoning religion entirely to finding a healthy, satisfying religious alternative – and they like to get together to share their experiences.

The struggle continues for retrieving Tahlequah, an orca whale sacred to indigenous traditions in the Pacific Northwest, from its confinement in Miami Seaquarium and returned to it whale pod, led by itsw mother, in Puget Sound, Washington. The story, reading like a movie thriller, began in the summer of 1970 when half a dozen orcas were snatched and sold to various theme parks, decimating the gene pool of remaining whales. Only one, Tahlequah (named Lolita in Miami) survived. Now, the Lummi tribe and thousands in the Pacific Northwest want her back. 

Let’s conclude with a happier story about how people from various traditions are learning new ways to create dynamic communities. Spokane Faith and Values (SpokaneFāVS), profiled by TIO two years ago, has been given a home for its grassroots interfaith activism. Origin Church, a progressive Christian congregation, is “faithfully” ending its ministry. On the basis of a vibrant interfaith community which has already been created, Origin Church decided to give its beautiful 3-acre property and sanctuary to SpokaneFāVS. It will be converted into a Center welcoming all traditions, including the not-affiliated. Uses will include retreats, classes, weddings, worship services, coffee talks, and special events. “Over the years SpokaneFāVS has created a community, and in return we’ve been given a community center,” said Tracy Simmons, executive director of SpokaneFāVS.

Header Photo: Pexels