Friday, February 25, 2011

The Real Danger of 2012

While millions of Americans are preparing to obsess over the end of the Mayan calendar, the real danger to America in 2012 is renewed anti–Muslim fear mongering tied to the 2012 elections. I suspect this is what is fueling a new bill introduced into the Tennessee Legislature by Sen. Bill Ketron and Rep. Judd Matheny, both Republicans, which makes following Sharia, Muslim law, a felony punishable by 15 years in prison.

“The threat from Shariah¬–based jihad and terrorism,” the bill states, “presents a real and present danger to the lawful governance of this state and to the peaceful enjoyment of citizenship by the residents of this state.” True enough; that is why we have laws prohibiting acts of violence and terrorism, regardless of the perpetrator.

Sen. Ketron and Rep. Matheny, however, aren’t seeking to strengthen laws against violence, but to criminalize Sharia, and hence Islam, as a whole. Sharia includes professing one’s faith in God and Muhammad, daily prayer, giving charity, fasting during Ramadan, and making pilgrimage to Mecca. Do we really want to criminalize these activities? Sharia also outlaws theft, murder and illicit sexual union. Would outlawing Sharia decriminalize these acts?

Sen. Ketron and Rep. Matheny have (deliberately?) equated extremist Islamic teachings for mainstream ones. While actual Sharia is a set of principles that is open to various interpretations depending on the scholars involved and the countries in which they live, their bill claims that "Sharia requires all its adherents to actively and passively support the replacement of America's constitutional republic, including the representative government of this state with a political system based upon sharia… sharia requires the abrogation, destruction, or violation of the United States and Tennessee Constitutions and the imposition of sharia through violence and criminal activity."

This interpretation of Sharia puts Sen. Ketron and Rep. Matheny in sync with Osama bin Laden, Ayman al Zawahiri, and American born jihadist Abu Mansoor al–Amriki, and if Sen. Ketron and Rep. Matheny were Muslims I would support this bill, and do everything I could to get them removed from office. But they aren’t Muslims and actual Tennessee Muslim leaders reject this interpretation of their faith. Tennessee is not in danger of becoming Saudi Arabia. Does anyone imagine that we will vote to make drinking alcohol and eating pork illegal? Are we really going to force the women of Tennessee to dress in chadors and give up driving?

This bill isn’t about protecting Americans; it is about scaring them. We are an easily frightened people, and when we are frightened we are capable of doing very bad things. As our country gears up for the next round of political insanity, anti–Muslim fear mongering will increase. Why? Because it generates votes. If such fear mongering were not a staple of American politics I would say we are witnessing the end of our democracy. But we aren’t. This is simply the sad way too many of our politicians play the game.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Meaning and Suffering

Last Friday I attended a lecture by New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman. During the talk he mentioned that he had abandoned his fundamentalist Christian faith because he was unable to reconcile its belief in a good and interventionist God, with all the suffering he saw in the world. I understand Dr. Ehrman’s problem, but opt for a different solution.

My own position is simple: God is not good. Neither is God bad. God is just God, Reality. We humans invent the categories of good and bad: good is what we like, bad is what we don’t like. Different people have different lists of likes and dislikes, and some among us insist that their lists come from God. God never says otherwise, so their claim can be ignored or denied, but never refuted.

As a student of the Bible I have trouble believing that God is opposed to suffering. God drowns almost all humanity in Genesis, terrorizes the Egyptian people, and murders their first born sons in Exodus, and then goes on to order the genocide of the indigenous peoples of the Promised Land.

Causing suffering is God’s MO: look what He is willing to put His Son through just to keep Himself from condemning all of humanity once again. God could have simply forgiven humanity, he didn’t need the torture and death of Jesus. Or did He? The Jewish and Christian Bibles make it clear that God needs the death of innocents (animals, babies, Jesus, etc.) to assuage His wrath. So who says God is anti-suffering?

I find the Book of Job to be the most honest book in the Bible. Job suffers because God wants him to suffer. In his conversation with Job God makes it clear that suffering is part of life, and there is nothing anyone (including God) can do about it. That insight was enough for Job, and he found comfort in the chaos of life. I accept the truth of Job, but I want something more: I want the chutzpah of Abraham.

When God tells Abraham of the coming destruction of Sodom, Abraham demands that the Judge of all the world should himself act justly (Genesis 18:25) . Killing the innocent along with the guilty is wrong. God agrees, though both he and Abe are willing to let the city die if ten good people can’t be found within its gates.

Dr. Ehrman left Christianity because its loving God seemed false. I have yet to leave Judaism because its God—Job’s God—seems all too true.

Judaism is (for me) a blending of Abraham and Job. Like Job I know that suffering and injustice are inescapable, and like Abraham (and the Prophets) I fight against them anyway. Judaism is a rebellion against reality: making meaning in a universe that transcends meaning. It is a rebellion that cannot be won, yet cannot be abandoned (It is not for us to complete the task, but neither are we free to abandon it—Rabbi Tarfon, Avot 2:21) . Our messiah is always coming and never arrives because our vision of a perfect world is always a hope and never a reality.

Suffering does not drive me from Judaism, it confirms the need for it.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Peace Treety

With all the turmoil going on in Egypt and other Muslim countries I am being constantly asked about future hopes for peace between Israel and her Arab neighbors. While I hope for peace I doubt it will happen in my lifetime. This is because for many the battle isn’t earthly but cosmic. It is a war between Allah and YHVH and their respective armies of the faithful. There are only two ways to end a cosmic conflict: one God wins and desimates the people of the other God, or people stop allowing themselves to be manipulated by Gods altogether. I can’t see the latter happening, so I take seriously this Hadith of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him):

Abu Huraira reported Allah’s Messenger as saying:

“Judgment Day will not come until the Muslims fight the Jews and kill them, until the Jews hide behind the tree and the stone, and the tree and the stone will say: ‘Oh Muslim, oh servant of Allah, there is a Jew behind me, come and kill him:’ – but the Gharqad tree will not say this, for it is the tree of the Jews.”

This is a good news/bad news Hadith. The bad news is that most Jews will die. This isn't unique to Islam. Some of my Christian friends tell me the same thing: all but 144,000 Jews must die in order for Jesus to return. There is just something about the death of Jews that turns some Gods on. The good news is that there is a tree of the Jews. I had no idea.

It turns out the Gharqad tree is Arabic for the boxthorn, a tree of the nightshade family, of which there are ninety species. I don’t know why this tree loves the Jews, but I am glad it does. All those other trees and stones are antiSemites—damn you, Magnolia tree in my backyard! Curse you Maple tree in my front yard!

I don’t know about you, but I’m going to start planting Gharqad trees everywhere. And while you may think me silly, you can at least see why I say there will be no peace in the Middle East. When the future depends on talking trees, you can be certain that the insanity and violence of people and their Gods is too much for what little rationality we have left.

[Case in point: anti-Jewish protests in Tunisia:]

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Live Free and Fart

I get a lot of scam emails. You know, the ones that ask you to help a Nigerian woman cash in on her husband’s millions by paying a bribe to the bank president. I’ve worked with several of these women, and these things never pan out. That’s how I know they’re scams. But since so many people are trying this, I assume some people are making money at it, so I have come up with two similar scams that I would like you to help me beta-test. Please share the following two letters.

My name is Howard Thachapanda. I am a citizen of Malawi, and I am in grave danger. My problem is simple: I fart. I fart a lot. And I make a lot of noise and emit terrible odors when I do so. Which is a lot. My country is about to make farting a crime, and I fear arrest at any moment. I have tried hiding, but the noise and smell of my farts gives me away no matter where I hide. I am contacting you because I know you are person who understands both farting and freedom. I have almost enough money to escape my country, and I am hoping you can supply the rest. It is only $50 dollars. If you can help please reply to this email, and I will ask for your bank account numbers, social security number, and the name of the dwarf who turns straw into gold in the Brothers Grimm fairy tale. Please help me. And soon. I had a large plate of beans just moments ago and I fear the police are patrolling near-by.

If you don’t feel comfortable pretending to be a citizen of Malawi, try this variant:

My name is J. Morris. I am a United States citizen living in Malawi. I am a mild mannered reporter working for a major metropolitan newspaper, and I am about to be tried in Malawi for the crime of farting. It was an accident, as I understood the law against farting, but I could not find a rest room and was forced to fart on the street. I did not know the man standing next to me was with the Malawi secret police. I was being targeted because I was secretly interviewing leaders of the Live Free and Fart movement in Malawi. I need to raise money for my defense. I was given your name along with several others because you are a champion of freedom, and, so I have been told, a fart sufferer. If you can help me, please respond to this email and we will figure out how much I can take you for. God bless you. And God bless America. And God bless Beano.

So please try these out and let me know which of them works the best. Any money you make from these is yours to keep as a “thank you” for being part of this product testing effort. If you do reply to this post please include your bank account numbers, social security number, and the name of the dwarf who turns straw into gold in the Brothers Grimm fairy tale.


Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Keynote for TN State Interfaith Harmony Breakfast 2011

[I gave this talk this morning at the Tennessee State Interfaith Harmony Week Breakfast. For more on the week check our website:]

There are two kinds of Interfaith programs: the safe and the frightening. The safe leave us untouched; we are same persons going in as we are coming out. The frightening leave us not only touched but transformed; we are different coming out then we were going in.

In the safe program representatives from various religions set forth the key teachings and practices of their respective faiths while their fellow panelists nod politely, pretending to some universal agreement that we know doesn’t exist if for no other reason than if it did exist, it would render our religions redundant.

Safe gatherings avoid both controversy and real conversation. They are not opportunities for dialogue, and focus on serial monologue instead.

Now, lest you think I am opposed to this kind of gathering, let me say quite clearly that I am not opposed. On the contrary: I believe there is a real need for safe Interfaith programming. For some of us just sitting on the same dais with members of other faiths is a breakthrough, let alone finding some common ground of agreement with them. I am not asking people to go further than they can. I am only interested in challenging them to go as far as they can. And for some of us, the safe is nowhere near far enough.

The deeper, scarier Interfaith dialogue to which I am committed happens when people of different faiths engage with one another in the realm Martin Buber called “the between.” Standing in “the between” you no longer follow a script; you are no longer an apologist for your faith, but a seeker of that Truth toward which all faiths may point and no faith can own. Standing in “the between” you cannot know in advance what you are going to say, because you are responding to the unknown and fundamentally unknowable. It is by standing together in “the between” that we share the possibility of hearing something new, and being changed by it.

Those of us who do this dangerous work need an understanding of religion that allows such meeting to happen. Let me share my own understanding as a means of starting a conversation on the promise of Interfaith.

I approach the world’s religions the way I approach the world’s languages. First, while we might say that the capacity for human language is God-given, specific languages are human creations. Second, there is no right or wrong language, no true language or false language. There are only a multiplicity of languages that help those who speak them to make sense of life and plant meaning in its midst.

Languages, like religions, differ. They have different grammars, emphases, and tones. They each see the world in slightly and sometimes vastly different ways. Hence there are things you can say in French that you just cannot say or cannot say as well in Chinese, and there are things you can say in Hinduism that you just cannot say or cannot say as well in Catholicism.

The more spoken languages I know, the richer and more nuanced is my understanding of the world. The more religious languages I know, the richer and more nuanced is my understanding of life.
This has nothing to do with creating some religious version of Esperanto. I love my mother tongues—both English and Judaism—and have no desire to abandon either. But I am enriched beyond description by learning Sanskrit, Chinese, Arabic, and Greek; Hinduism, Taoism, Islam, and Christianity. No one should be asked to abandon her mother tongue, and everyone should be encouraged to study the other languages of human religiosity. Deep Interfaith encounter is one way to learn another’s language, and when we do we cannot help but be transformed by that knowledge.

This is the kind of Interfaith dialogue I long for. This is the kind of Interfaith dialogue Scarritt-Bennett Center and Wisdom House promote in our monthly Common Table breakfasts, our Dialogues on Faith groups, our Essential Conversations lunches, and other programs. We are not looking to change the languages of faith, but to change those who speak them. We are not looking to create a new religion, but to help foster a new religious sensitivity. We are not interested in blending religions or laying claim to a false and facile religious unity, but to helping one another find in our differences insights of spiritual genius that can transform our lives.

Hinduism’s Rig Veda, perhaps the world’s oldest sacred text, teaches: “Truth is one; different people call it by different names.” The names matter. The Tao isn’t Allah, and Christ isn’t Krishna. Rather they, and all the names we humans have created for that which is ultimately Unnamable, speak to part of the Truth. The more names we know, the more parts we understand, and the closer to Truth we come. But we can never reduce Truth to words. This is why in addition to dialogue we must engage with one another in silent meditation as well.

As the Tao te Ching tells us, “The Tao that can be named is not the Eternal Tao.” Ultimately all words fall short; and all voices must fall silent. It is good that we share our liturgies; it is better that we share the greater silence. And this too is the promise of Interfaith.
When we are free to share our languages without having to defend them, we will at last come to the end of talk, and fall silent together in a humbling stillness that frees us from words, and awakens us to that Ultimate Truth that no words can frame.

This week is World Interfaith Harmony Week. The harmony we seek is not the cheap harmony of serial monologue, or the faux harmony of people ignoring differences, or the fragile harmony of people pretending to believe what they do not believe simply to get along.

Real harmony will take more than a week to create. It will not happen among those who fear to hear, let alone speak, another’s religious language. It will not happen among those whose faith needs defending, but only among those whose faith leads them to the ultimate humbling, and the courage to step into “the between.”

To enter “the between,” first in words and then in silence, is the challenge and promise of Interfaith, the goal of World Interfaith Harmony Week, and the mission of Scarritt–Bennett’s Wisdom House. This is the path on which we embark this morning. Let us walk it to the end.