Interfaith News Roundup - July 2019

Interfaith News Roundup

July 15, 2019

Startling International Developments

Purnendu Goswami, a Hindu monk who became an atheist, has an ashram in the city of Vrindavan, a sacred site celebrating Krishna and Radha, two of India’s most beloved deities. But he is finding that Hinduism, famously open to a variety of different religious traditions, has little room for atheism. Other prominent Indian atheists have been assassinated in recent years. Goswami, without hiding his perspective, focuses on teaching traditional Indian Ayurvedic medicine and yoga as well as running an Ayurvedic restaurant.

KAICIID (King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz International Centre for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue) is a UN interfaith project sponsored by Austria, Saudi Arabia, and Spain. It has made Vienna its headquarters since 2012. Most of the millions that make KAICIID a major global interfaith stakeholder come from Saudi Arabia, whose strict Sharia laws have created all sorts of blowback for the interfaith project. The situation came a head last month with the imminent death sentence of Murtaja Qureiris, an 18-year-old rights activist, condemned for participating in a political demonstration when he was ten. As a result, the Austrian National Council is requiring KAICIID to leave Austria, and is withdrawing from its partnership with Spain and the Saudis.

How is this for a political-economic-religious stew? Turns out that more than half the 100 million Bibles published each year come off the press in China, largely because of their advanced publishing capabilities. The ability to use thin paper, insert color pages, do special stitching, and print on leather is beyond the capability of most American printers. If the tariffs threatened against China by Donald Trump go into effect, the cost of scripture should go up considerably in the US.

Discouraging Religious Numbers in the West

Photo:    Needpix

Photo: Needpix

New statistics indicate that 55% of Canadians identify as Christian, 14% identify with other religions, and 29% are religiously unaffiliated. Though much more religiously inclined (29%) than its cousins in the UK (21%) and France (14%), it’s hard not to notice that there are twice as many in the no-religion contingent as in the all-other religious communities.

Gallup reports that “Americans' confidence in the church or organized religion continues to erode, with only 36% now saying they have ‘a great deal’ or ‘quite a lot’ of confidence in organized religion, establishing another new low point in Gallup's trend.” Meanwhile, the military has a confidence rate of 73%, small business receives 68%, and the police 53%. Clergy sexual abuse for the past 30 years is cited as a major factor in low religious confidence.

In more bad news for American religion, the newest Giving USA report suggests that charitable giving decreased by $3 billion in 2018. Giving to religion went down 1.5%, a decrease of 3.9% adjusted for inflation, leaving a total of $125 billion in contributions. A major factor in the decrease, analysts say, are changes in Federal tax policy under the Trump administration.

By contrast, 55% of all Greeks say that religion is very important to them. This high rate stays high with Greek expatriates far from home. “Part of being a pious Greek Orthodox is doing tama, or oblation: a promise one gives to God in exchange for help with a difficult task.” This puts expats in a bind. A tama may involve lighting a candle in the cathedral you grew up in, difficult if you live thousands of miles away. Meanwhile a new app – Do My Tama – will perform your tama for a fee of $40 to $200 USD. A third of the fee goes to the local who does the work, a third to the church where it is performed, and a third to a nonprofit chosen by the donor. Maria Psyridi, who created the digital program, gets a small percentage to run the business. It has been roundly criticized by some and is a source of joy and thanksgiving for others.

Encouraging News

Church World Service mounted a Ration Challenge, asking individuals to limit their food during Refugee Week (June 17-23) to what a Syrian refugee can expect to eat. More than 40,000 signed up for the challenge and received packets of food to be consumed during the week. Packets contained small amounts of  rice, flour, lentils, chickpeas, beans, fish, and oil. Sponsors funding those who accepted the challenge raised more than $10 million, to be spent helping 30,000 refugees. The project began five years ago in Australia. The US participated this year for the first time. This splendid generosity is a spark of light in a world challenged with 68.5 million refugees, according to the United Nations 2018 figures.

The film “Emanuel” premiered in 1,000 communities last month before going into general release. Focused on the assassination of nine prayer-group members at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina four years ago, it is a searing view of resurgent racism in America, the power of forgiveness, and the need for a transformed culture. Good movies come and go so quickly these days, but the Sojourners review makes a strong case that Emanuel is a film which can transform  us and that every American needs to see it.

Halimah Yacob – Photo:    Wikipedia

Halimah Yacob – Photo: Wikipedia

In Singapore 250 religious organizations have joined together to make a commitment to safeguard religious harmony in the wake of growing interethnic tensions across the globe. Singapore’s president, Halimah Yacob, was given a framed copy of the pledge at a three-day International Conference on Cohesive Societies.

America’s political left has not had a very fruitful relationship with religion and its leaders in recent years. But the bulging group of Democratic candidates for the 2020 presidency is making a concerted effort to heal this religion-political breach. The candidates are listening (and making their case) to progressive religionists. Rev. William Barber, co-chair of the Poor Peoples Campaign and the country’s preeminent peace and justice advocate, is facilitating the dialogue. Numerous subjects are being explored, including the environment, racism, health care, and, particularly, economic injustice and poverty.

From Rome

Last month Pope Francis called for reorienting the training of priests to better emphasize dialogue and relationship with leaders of Judaism and Islam. By loosening the ties of dogmatic theology, as well, and studying theology in relationship to other traditions, we will all move forward more peacefully, he said, speaking at an Italian Jesuit seminary.

Certain leaders at the Vatican have begun an open discussion about the possibility of married Roman Catholic priests, reports the Economist. Triggering the discussion has been the paucity of priests in the Amazon basin where the Church is competing with Pentecostal Christians vying for new members from the many indigenous communities of the Amazon. The need has led some to declare it a “Eucharistic famine” that calls for allowing married clergy.

Training to Become a Religious/Spiritual Leader

United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities, in Minnesota, has a number of students who identify with more than one faith tradition. In the process the school is becoming a new kind of interreligious institution, one much more mirroring the public at large. Creating an interfaith-friendly environment for higher religious education is not new. The Association of Theological Schools started requiring interfaith coursework for an accredited Master of Divinity diploma four years ago. Pacific School of Religion, another seminary rooted in the United Church of Christ, has been admitting everyone from Buddhists to Pagans who wish to pursue a theological education. Drew Theological School, a Methodist seminary in New Jersey, is partnering with the Islamic Center of Passaic County in a new core curriculum course.

Then, of course, there are the intentional interfaith seminaries. More than a dozen have emerged in the US in recent years. They promote an alternative approach to religious leadership, focused on the multiplicity of religions graduates will encounter as religious leaders in an increasingly diverse culture. In short, a level of interfaith cooperation and programming in American seminaries is emerging that was unheard of a decade ago.

Concerning the Earth

The United Church of Christ (UCC) became the first American denomination to affirm the new Green New Deal, introduced into the US House of Representatives by Rep. Ocasio-Cortez. The goals of the Green New Deal including achieving net-zero greenhouse gas emissions, building smart power grids, updating buildings to be more efficient, and training workers for jobs in a new “green” economy for the next decade. Recently the denomination voted to divest itself from fossil fuels.

Photo:    Unsplash

Photo: Unsplash

The United National Environmental newsletter last month featured a story about how all religions promote environmental protection and care for nature and the planet. “From Buddhism to Christianity to Hinduism to Islam, various faiths acknowledge the need for environmental stewardship, and their holy texts urge adherents to be caretakers of the Earth and its biodiversity.” This is a particularly useful resource in building broad public support for addressing climate change and the environment.

The G20 Interfaith Forum, bringing together religious leaders and activists, is synchronized each year with the G20 gatherings of the world’s strongest nations. The Interfaith Forum, which does a deep dive into the world’s problems from various faith perspectives, lacks what they most need: to be able to influence the politic brokers that seeking the common good is more important than national power. It has received almost no international or national attention, with one exception. The Deseret News of Salt Lake City, Utah, has run a series of articles unpacking and promoting the work of the Forum. The title of a recent piece is “Why G20 Governments Need Faith Leaders to Solve the World's Problems.” (See Katherine Marshall’s presentation to the G20 Interfaith Forum on religion and disaster response in this issue.)

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URI Returns to Stanford

In the nineties, Stanford University hosted two global summits leading to the founding of United Religions Initiative (URI). The organization’s remarkable Charter was signed on June 26, 20oo. On its birthday last month, URI counted more than 1,013 Cooperation Circles in 109 countries.

Entering its twentieth year, URI returned to Stanford for a week. One day was given to members of Cooperation Circles, an opportunity to renew old friendships, make new ones, and dig into compelling group exercises and discussions about issues most of us face in interfaith work. Four days were given to discussions among some 40 global staff members and Global Council members, together constituting an international rainbow of racial, ethnic, and religious backgrounds.

Photo: Paul Chaffee

Photo: Paul Chaffee

The week was filled out with a two-day conference devoted to “Accelerate Peace – Interfaith Action in Global Peacebuilding.” Most URI events are highly interactive, as was the CC’s day. At the conference, though, most of us had never heard of the more than two dozen presenters, and they did most of the talking. The secret sauce for keeping hundreds of us quiet and engaged? The speakers were mostly stars in their own arenas who rarely get any major media but have compelling stories to share.

For instance, 18-year-old Kehkashan Basu, from Dubai originally, is an international human rights champion who brought us to our feet. Jonathan Granoff is considered the world’s leading nuclear disarmament advocate. Mussie Hailu, starting in Africa and now working globally, is one of the most gifted interfaith collaborators alive. The issues these extraordinary activists addressed?  Actively promoting interfaith dialogue … ending religiously motivated violence … nuclear disarmament … women’s empowerment … environmental sustainability … interfaith networking … storytelling and activism.

Presentations were short, dialogue followed on each panel, and this more traditional conference structure kept the attention of the several hundred who attended. A conversation between Bishop William Swing and General James Mattis, recent United States Secretary of Defense, was illuminating, a distinguished ‘warrior’ with considerable wisdom talking with a bishop about accelerating peace. Like several other presenters, they were rewarded with standing ovations.

In a world facing so much difficulty and despair, the experience at Stanford was like a garden of light filled up with remarkable people, people it’s a pleasure to know, particularly if you are an interfaith activist.

Header Photo: Unsplash